"42": A Hollywood Homage to Jackie Robinson and Little More

In baseball jargon, overly sentimental Jackie Robinson film strikes out

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Warner Bros.

    Jackie Robinson is as complicated a hero as Hollywood has ever known, and it may be that the present Tinsel Town really wouldn't want anything to do with him if it weren't for the likely commercialization off the film "42" that opens Friday.

    Robinson, after all, was an ardent Republican who campaigned for Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election, and was a lone ranger in the fight for civil rights.

    You won't see that side of Robinson in "42," a true-to-life film depiction of the baseball legend from writer-director Brian Helgeland, whose 1997 "L.A. Confidential" won a screenwriting Oscar.

    Helgeland's "42," though, isn't a film biography but in the spirit of modern-day screenwriting, a slice of life attempting to capture the essence of Robinson much as Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" centered on the campaign to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

    Harrison Ford Plays Ball In "42"

    [NBCAH] Harrison Ford Plays Ball In "42"
    Harrison Ford talks about the powerful script for his new film, "42," in which he plays Dodgers executive Branch Rickey. He also discusses Branch and Jackie Robinson's relationship. "42" is in theaters April 12.

    "42" focuses on Robinson's rookie 1947 season, when he courageously withstands racial hatred and epithets from players, managers and fans as he breaks baseball's color barrier and leads the Brooklyn Dodgers triumphantly to the National League pennant and into the World Series.

    The film ends there, the Dodgers' World Series against the New York Yankees seemingly unimportant (Spoiler Alert: The Yankees win in seven.), much like the 1984 film adaptation of Bernard Malamud's "The Natural" stops with the mythical Roy Hobbs slugging the light-popping, dramatic home run that wins a pennant.

    The comparison between those two Hollywood baseball films ends there, however.

    All the stories we've read or known about the racism Robinson confronted that 1947 season are in the film, depicted true to how they happened, so much so that you could sleep through scenes – make no mistake, this isn't "L.A. Confidential" – and still talk about how courageous Jackie was and about how much foresight Brooklyn Dodger GM Branch Rickey had to have put that drama in motion.

    Actor Chadwick Boseman is convincing as Jackie, even bearing a slight resemblance to Robinson at that age. But neither the script nor the timeframe depicted in the film allow him or his character to develop much beyond being brave and noble.

    If you fall in love with him, which America loves to do with its heroes, it's because of all the abuse he accepts and overcomes in almost Gandhi-like fashion and not because of any depth in his character – there isn't much on the screen, or presumably in the script.

    The surprise in the film, for me, was Harrison Ford's disappointing, almost comic-book portrayal of Branch Rickey, who may have been one of the most Machiavellian baseball executive's in the game's history.

    You are tempted to say, in somewhat baseballese language, that his performance was not Harrison Ford-like but that would suggest he wasn't very Han Solo or Indiana Jones, though it wouldn't be far off to say it was Indy Jones telling Jackie Robinson he wanted a player courageous enough not to fight back.

    The film itself is troubling, but not for the obvious reasons. You would hope that a film about Jackie Robinson would be as great as he was, or close to it.

    "42," unfortunately isn't. It's not "Moneyball," "The Natural," "Field of Dreams," "Bull Durham" or "Major League" – the films universally at the top of baseball genre movies. I can't even say it makes the level of "The Rookie" or "Eight Men Out." Instead, it's there with "For Love of the Game" or "Mr. Baseball." But better than John Goodman's "The Babe" or "Summer Catch."

    But then this is a feel-good movie, if there ever was one.

    It is, on one level, Hollywood's latest apology to black America for the country's history of racism, including its national pastime – completing the mea culpa that began with Ken Burns' 1994, 18 ½ hour documentary "Baseball," which seemed to frame the game as little more than a bastardization of cricket until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

    There is something to be said about that. But not to the exclusion and denial of the roles and contributions of players with names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and all the game's heroes before 1947 whose importance shouldn't be lessened because they happened to be white.

    The story of baseball is complicated, just as Jackie Robinson's life was complicated.

    Robinson wasn't comfortable with the role he came to play in history, nor his relationship with baseball and the Dodgers who could never get him to participate in Old Timers games or other celebrations.

    Finally on June 4, 1972, Robinson agreed to come to Dodger Stadium to have his number retired, largely at the instigation of former teammate Don Newcombe.

    Sportswriter Ron Rapoport interviewed Robinson on that special day and reported the story for the Los Angeles Times. A week later, Rapoport received a typewritten letter from Jackie.

    "My article had been all right, he said," Rapoport later wrote, "but there was one thing he wanted to straighten out.

    "Don Newcombe had been trying to peddle that garbage about him regretting his estrangement from the Dodgers and from baseball for years and I was not to believe a word of it.

    "He regretted nothing, he wrote, nothing at all."

    That same year, Robinon published his autobiography "I Never Had It Made" in which a passage about Game 1 of that 1947 World Series could easily have been a fitting epilogue for "42."

    "Today as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey's drama, and that I was only a principal actor," he wrote.

    "As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the (national) anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made."

    Jackie Robinson -- the legendary color barrier breaker, the Republican who antagonized and disappointed civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, the name synonymous with baseball -- was an enigmatic rebel to the end.

    Four months after having his number retired, Jackie Robinson was dead.