Tuesday, January 28, 2014

No Homerun

I recently got to watch last year's film 42, the story of Jackie Robinson's historic break into Major League Baseball. Though a decent enough movie, I think it suffered some for being produced by the Hollywood film establishment; I think that perhaps a better version of the story could have been turned out from an independent producer, or perhaps one of the cable networks.

Credit where it's due: the makers of this movie rightly realized that they needed to cast a relatively unknown actor to play Jackie Robinson. It's hard to imagine a familiar face inhabiting the role of the iconic baseball player without that on some level distracting from the story. Chadwick Boseman plays a credible, likable Robinson, and this may well be the start of a good acting career for him.

But a big studio doesn't want to headline a big movie without a big actor's name above the title. So 42 has Harrison Ford playing team executive Branch Rickey... and I think his presence may be detrimental to the movie. This is nothing against Harrison Ford. In fact, I think this is his best performance I've seen since The Fugitive. He convincingly inhabits a worn-out old paper pusher who has decided to upset the status quo, and adopts a rather un-Ford like physicality and vocal style in doing so.

The problem is, the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the racial barrier in professional sports is exactly that: Jackie Robinson's story. And though it's certainly true that some forward thinking executive had to give him that chance, it seems to me that even in the most generous characterization of history, Robinson and Rickey ought to share the credit evenly for the milestone. But by casting a big name, a face as recognized the world over as Harrison Ford, the story balance is tipped inexorably to the executive. It feels like the story of Branch Rickey. And even the script is constructed that way; the first scene is about Rickey sharing his "big idea" with his staff, and the last scene is him alone in his ballpark, quietly celebrating his team's successful bid to make the playoffs.

I think a more independent production would have been content to let some of the other strong actors, several recognizable, carry the movie instead by shining in their smaller parts. And they do. Christopher Meloni is good as a Dodgers coach drummed out of his job. Alan Tudyk is shocking as the racist manager of the Phillies. John C. McGinley steals every scene he's in as radio commentator Red Barber. And you may well recognize one of more of the working actors who populate the Dodgers team.

42 is a well-intentioned movie that just doesn't really manage to give its subject the star treatment it deserves. I give it a B-. It may still be worth seeing, particularly if you're a fan of sports movies, but unlike Robinson himself, it will likely be forgotten in a few years.

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