Friday, April 12, 2013

42: You know the number

42 (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, profanity and unpalatable language
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.12.13

42 is an unabashed valentine to baseball great Jackie Robinson: an old-style film laden with the sort of calculated sentimentality that Frank Capra delivered back in the day.

Relying on the split-second timing and sprinting ability that have made him a
sensational — and crowd-pleasing — base-stealer, Jackie Robinson (Chadwick
Boseman, left) delights in messing with the minds of pitchers who, after a few rounds
of this, sometimes lose their cool completely.
The pacing is leisurely and graceful, with unhurried takes granting us time to absorb the story and appreciate the performances. Writer/director Brian Helgeland and editors Peter McNulty and Kevin Stitt avoid the staccato pacing and smash-cuts that have become a 21st century norm, preferring instead to let events unfold in a manner that reflects the poetry of baseball itself.

Honestly, I found it quite refreshing.

Although Helgeland has taken pains to be faithful to the firestorm that erupted in 1947, when Robinson became the first player to break Major League Baseball’s infamous color line, the approach here is — at the risk of unintended irony — acutely black and white. All the positive (i.e. progressive) historical figures are extraordinarily virtuous, their memories honored here by behavior that is, for the most part, nothing short of saintly.

The racist crackers, on the other hand, are one-dimensional and mostly anonymous: a redneck sheriff here, a small-town gaggle of thugs there. The one exception, almost startling in a film that until this point has (rather unrealistically) avoided much blatantly racist language, comes from Alan Tudyk’s portrayal of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. No doubt Helgeland felt safe with this choice of highly visible villain, since by all accounts the actual Chapman’s on-field behavior was even worse than what we witness here.

But that’s getting ahead of things.

Although characters too good to be true often don’t work in our increasingly cynical age, this film gets its crucial dramatic juice from the sublime lead performance by Chadwick Boseman, an actor, playwright and stage director whose screen work thus far has been confined mostly to TV shows such as Lincoln Heights and Persons Unknown. I suspect that’s about to change, because Boseman never puts a foot wrong here.

It’s difficult to convey the mesmerizing, deeply stirring lightning in a bottle that emanates from a genuinely inspirational person: the breathtaking whoosh that erupts when a truly electrifying individual strides through a door and sucks all the air out of a room. We feel it in the presence of a gifted politician or preacher, or when a commanding actor takes the stage during a live theatrical performance.

Boseman has that sort of presence, and Helgeland coaxes truly fine and sensitive work from this young actor. Boseman’s line readings are heartfelt and well timed, but that’s only part of it; he carries himself in a manner that suggests the brave self-assurance that Robinson himself must have displayed, every waking minute during this tempestuous point in his career.

In a nutshell, Boseman’s performance is inspirational in the same way that Robinson himself must have stirred so many people, back in 1947.

Robinson’s entire life represents a broad, busy tapestry that couldn’t be depicted in anything less than a lengthy miniseries. Helgeland wisely confines his treatment to two pivotal years, from 1945 to ’47, when Robinson got married, signed with the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, and subsequently made his major league debut.

The story begins in the immediate aftermath of World War II, as the black soldiers who’ve helped defend American ideals return to a country where Jim Crow laws and separate-and-unequal divides remain the norm in far too many states, and where subtler racism exerts a chilling effect even in reformist regions. Major League Baseball remains exclusively white, with black players relegated to the so-called Negro Leagues.

Although this racial divide is heavily institutionalized fact of life, the war represents a tipping point. (That, and the 1944 death of longtime baseball commissioner Kenesaw M. Landis, an avowed opponent of integrating the game; Helgeland doesn’t cover this detail.) The brave step is taken by this story’s other hero: Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey, who — despite ferocious opposition from the league, the public, his own players and even some of his own staff members — signs Robinson to the team.

It doesn’t happen all at once, of course; Rickey is too shrewd for that. He handles the process in stages.

The colorful, cheerfully irascible Rickey is played by Harrison Ford, at times hard to recognize behind padding and makeup prosthetics. It’s a grand, glorious, show-boating portrayal, helped greatly by the tart dialogue that Ford delivers with cigar-chomping verve.

It’s the sort of feisty supporting performance that earns Academy Award nominations, and that wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest. Ford has never been better. The only minor hiccup concerns his attempt to mimic Rickey’s distinctive voice, an acting (and directing) decision that, at times, calls a little too much attention to the artifice.

The distinction is easy to see, when comparing this film’s two stars: Boseman slips into his character’s skin and becomes Jackie Robinson, whereas Ford doesn’t quite transcend being an actor imitating Branch Rickey. Not that you’ll likely care; Ford’s vibrant performance lights up the screen every time Rickey appears, and his grumpy façade also helps us endure this story’s nastier elements. Ford’s performance doesn’t quite qualify as comic relief, but Helgeland definitely employs him to ease tension.

Andre Holland is memorable as Wendell Smith, the Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter assigned to Robinson as both chaperone and Boswell. Holland’s work here is quiet and dignified, his expressive eyes conveying considerable emotional depth behind the spectacles that shorthand his role as the story’s intellectual presence. He’s also the character who brings us into the past, by cautioning Robinson — and therefore instructing us — about the dangers of impulsive behavior.

The importance of Robinson’s role not only in baseball, but in this country’s embryonic civil rights movement, is made clear during a gentle confrontation when Smith confesses his own frustration: Because he writes for a newspaper that caters to the country’s black community, he’s refused admission to the Baseball Writers Association of America. Holland delivers this little speech perfectly.

This informational nugget lends greater weight to the way we frequently see Smith: seated in the bleachers, his typewriter on his knees, rather than in the sportswriters’ section of the stands.

Nicole Beharie plays Rachel Robinson as the world’s most devoted, sympathetic and encouraging wife, an artistic decision no doubt influenced by the actual Rachel Robinson’s presence as consultant on this film. Even so, Beharie and Boseman look good together, and they share easy chemistry; they persuasively convey the “two of us against the world” outlook that must have characterized this couple.

Christopher Meloni makes the most of his scenes as tempestuous and outspoken player-turned-manager Leo Durocher, whose off-field antics eventually get him suspended. (Somewhat oddly, Helgeland’s script blames this on immoral conduct, rather than the historically accurate “association with known gamblers.”) Before he fades from view, though, Meloni delivers one of Durocher’s most famous speeches, when he challenges a petition signed by Dodgers players who don’t want to share the field with Robinson.

Durocher’s absence creates a leadership vacuum that Rickey fills with retired scout Burt Shotton (Max Gail), a character granted a nice introduction when he meets the players ... and then isn’t seen or heard from again. That’s oddly sloppy, and one of Helgeland’s few narrative missteps. (I can’t help wondering if some of Gail’s scenes wound up on the cutting-room floor.)

Lucas Black has a nice, feel-good character arc as Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, and John C. McGinley’s performance as famed sportscaster Walter Lanier “Red” Barber sounds so authentic, that McGinley obviously could have had a second career.

Mark Isham’s score is, at times, as subtle as Boseman’s performance, while also swelling with suitably uplifting crescendos at all the right moments.

Helgeland shared a scripting Oscar for his 1997 adaptation of L.A. Confidential, and then earned his directorial rep by helming 2001’s wildly revisionist medieval fable, A Knight’s Tale (which he also wrote). Subsequent scripting assignments have included Mystic River, the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 and 2010’s Robin Hood. His style leans toward strong ensemble stories populated by characters who make the most of entendre-laden dialogue; that makes his occasional tendency here, toward overstated melodrama, a bit bewildering.

Indeed, at times Helgeland ladles it on with a trowel, never more blatantly than when a young baseball fan (an uncredited Nickolas Wolf) reluctantly echoes his father’s racist epithets during a game. OK, yes, we get it: Reprehensible behavior results from nurture, not nature. But it’s a needlessly exaggerated scene, with cinematographer Don Burgess’ camera shoved right into the poor kid’s face.

So yes, one could wish for a bit more subtlety on Helgeland’s part, along with a bit more emotional complexity in some of these oh-so-perfect protagonists. But even if this film wears its heart on its sleeve, it’s hard to argue with a narrative that builds to such a triumphant, soul-satisfying conclusion.

Don’t be surprise when people applaud the final scenes. Or when you find yourself doing the same.

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