Monday, May 27, 2013

Bears On Film: 42

Hi, everyone!  We're Joey and Iggy Beartran, your fav'rit Studious Metsimus film critics.  In today's edition of Bears On Film, we'd like to give you our thoughts on the movie "42", starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey.

What can we say about this film that hasn't already been said?  (And it's been said by pretty much everyone, considering we're reviewing the film six weeks after it was released.)  The film tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in the major leagues, focusing on the three-year period from 1945 - when Brooklyn Dodgers' executive Branch Rickey got the idea to sign an African-American player - to 1947, when Robinson led the Dodgers to the National League pennant.

In the film's opening scene, Rickey (played beautifully by Harrison Ford) explains his intention to sign a man of color, saying that "money isn't black or white - it's green."  Rickey chooses to sign Robinson over his other Negro League contemporaries because he's young, college-educated, and has experience playing with white teammates from his time on the UCLA baseball team.  But Robinson's academic and baseball education in California wasn't enough to prepare him for the education in bigotry and hatred he would receive as a member of the Dodgers organization.

Chadwick Boseman embodied the spirit of Jackie Robinson in the film.  He was a fighter who wasn't afraid to stand up for himself and his beliefs (as evidenced by a scene in which he told a white gas station attendant that his team would find another service station if he wasn't allowed to use the bathroom) and he was also a devout family man who loved his young bride, Rachel (brilliantly portrayed by Nicole Beharie) and their newborn son, Jackie Jr.

The love shared by Jackie and Rachel Robinson rivaled their love to fight for what was right.

Both Boseman and Beharie were excellent in their roles, with Boseman perfectly conveying the struggles of being a black player in a white sport and Beharie showing her devotion to her husband and his dream of succeeding under difficult conditions.  And what difficult conditions they were!

Robinson had to deal with opposing players (and several of his own teammates) who didn't want him on the field.  Opposing managers also weren't keen on the idea of facing a black opponent.  Phillies manager Ben Chapman (played with villainous accuracy by Alan Tudyk) was the worst offender of them all.  His repeated use of the "n-word" and other vile epithets whenever Robinson stepped up to the plate did what no other man could do.  It nearly broke Robinson.

But in one memorable scene (though not one that was exactly factual), Branch Rickey finds Robinson in the tunnel behind the Dodgers dugout after Robinson had broken his bat into pieces following a racist tirade by Chapman.  Rickey tries to convince a distraught and nearly broken Robinson to return to the game because he's better than those who try to bring him down.  Robinson, still shaken, ponders the situation before informing Rickey that he'll need a new bat.

Robinson did return to the game and before long, he returned the National League pennant to Brooklyn, a place it had rarely been in team history.  On the way to the pennant, the viewer got to see iconic moments from the 1947 season.  From Robinson's major league debut to Pee Wee Reese famously putting his arm around the shoulder of his first baseman at Cincinnati's Crosley Field, the film stayed close to true events and showed the extreme difficulties of being ostracized by an ignorant society.

Iggy and I re-enact the scene between Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson.

On personal notes, both Iggy and I loved seeing the old, defunct ballparks in the film.  From Ebbets Field (and the Abe Stark sign on the outfield wall) to the Polo Grounds (with the Longines Clock in center field), it was a delight to see parks we were too young to see in person.  Also delightful were the performances of Andre Holland as Pittsburgh Courier reporter Wendell Smith, Christopher Meloni as suspended Dodger manager Leo Durocher (as a long-time fan of Law & Order: SVU, Iggy was quite fond on his performance) and John C. McGinley, who was "foist-rate" as Dodger broadcaster Red Barber.

But of course, as Mets fans, we can't finish our review without mentioning the performance of 11-year-old Dusan Brown.  The young Master Brown played the role of a child who was in awe of Jackie Robinson and couldn't wait to see him play in person, which he did when he attended a spring training game in Florida with his mother.  In his first at-bat, Robinson walked on four pitches, then promptly stole second and third.  The pitcher (who, like many other players at the time, was not in favor of Robinson sharing a field with him) got so rattled by Robinson's antics on the bases, he dropped the ball on the mound, allowing Robinson to score on a balk.

In one of the film's funniest lines, Master Brown explained to his mother that the pitcher "was discombobulated" by Robinson's baserunning wizardry.  Long-time Mets fans should not be surprised by the 11-year-old's use of the polysyllabic word, as he grew up to become "The Glider" on the 1969 World Series champion New York Mets.  And of course, in addition to being the team's third baseman in their miraculous season, Ed Charles was the team's poet laureate, crafting numerous rhyming couplets in his days with the team.  So it would be safe to say that "discombobulated" was a word that a future poet laureate would be familiar with as a middle-schooler.

Glad to see that Dusan Brown was not "discombobulated" as he portrayed a young Ed Charles.

In summary, "42" was a wonderful tribute to the man who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947.  The film was clearly a labor of love by writer/director Brian Helgeland and accurately captured what it was like to live in a world where tolerance and acceptance of people of color were still new concepts.

Baseball fans will certainly enjoy the on-field scenes featuring the Brooklyn Dodgers in action.  But fans of American history (and Robinson's life is quite an important part of the history of our country) will truly appreciate the film for its portrayal of a real American hero.  We can't think of anything to complain about this film (although Iggy wishes the film would have shown the iconic moment when Jackie Robinson stood in front of the Dodgers clubhouse wearing his Montreal Royals jersey), and as a result, we gladly give "42" two paws up.

"42" is a film no true baseball fan should miss.  Heck, it's a film no true American should miss.  It's a grand slam in every sense of the word.

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