Extra polish helps ‘42’ shine a little brighter

The movie “42” somehow overcomes the binds of its melodrama to rise into a solid, respectful biopic of beloved American hero Jackie Robinson. That respect is needed for many reasons, not least of which is that it marks the 66th anniversary after he stepped onto the field as a Brooklyn Dodgers infielder, breaking the color-barrier in Major League Baseball and opening the door for other racial integration.

Not that melodrama is always a bad thing.

Director and writer Brian Helgeland would have been hard-pressed to avoid dramatizing scenes to show the heroics and sympathy – a word derived from the Greek pathos, we’re told, that means “to suffer” – of circumstances and situations far too brutally raw and hateful to leave raw on the film for a modern audience who now live in a world far removed from the one on screen.

The film opens with newsreel footage of bombers and troops from World War II, with a voice-over describing the return of “the Great Generation” to America at the end of the war. And it was the great generation because the America they returned to was full of problems. Segregation and racial strife was just one of them, but one of the hardest to overcome.

Robinson began his career, as far as the movie is concerned, with the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League baseball team. The film uses early scenes of the Monarchs playing another Negro League team and a stop at a gas station where he was barred from using the restroom because of his skin color to show that Robinson was a fighter of conviction. Relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman takes up the challenge of the character with gusto.

In fact, Boseman so embodies Robinson that in certain scenes it really looks as though Robinson is there, about to steal second, with his legs spread wide and his fingers waggling – but with an intensity in his eyes. His base-stealing was phenomenal, but it stands here as a larger metaphor for getting into the heads of establishment.

Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey is played in a nearly flamboyant performance by Harrison Ford, finally cast in a role closer to his real age than the failed action movies he’s done in recent years. The performance leaves his mouth open in a way resembling palsy as he chain-smokes cigars and gruffs out his lines in a warble that is as close to an angry W.C. Fields character as it is to the real life Rickey.

The larger-than-life way Ford plays Rickey is effective because the role demands it. Although there are no written laws about integrating the “big leagues,” there is an unwritten code. Rickey knows the hate will come crashing down on him – but even more on whoever is chosen to represent his entire race to a world unready to accept it.

So, up Robinson comes, pulled from the Negro Leagues up into the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ International League affiliate team (interesting fact: Rickey is remembered nearly as much for developing the modern minor league farming system as he is for breaking the color barrier).

When the Royals play an exhibition game in Florida against the Dodgers, a little black boy in the stands lets his enthusiasm for seeing Robinson take the field hold up against the racial taunting of the white people around him.

It’s often these side scenes, taking place away from the action, that make up the most tear-jerking moments of the film. A series game in Cincinnati really tugs at you when a father speaks excitedly with his son in a sweet way about how many hits Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers shortstop, will get, before jumping to his feet to reveal his hate. The little boy joins in with his father out of love and trying to fit in but the confusion and remorse in his face when Reese embraces Robinson in the field says more than words can.

Another powerful scene takes place when Robinson, who is known for “discombobulating” the heads of pitchers with his base-stealing, becomes just as discombobulated by Phillies Manager Ben Chapman’s (Alan Tudyk, a mainstay of Helgeland’s films) non-stop barrage of sickening hatred during Robinson’s at-bat. It doesn’t help when the catcher flicks the inside of his left thigh to indicate that the pitcher should throw right at Robinson’s head.

The tragedy is that Robinson has been shouldered with the weight of the future, and not just himself. It’s not enough to play Major League ball, but he has to play on the sympathy and the expectations to the world.

Special mention should go out to Nicole Beharie, who plays Robinson’s wife Rachel, who obviously put her entire being into the role, from her huge smiles to every nuance in her face that says more than words can.

It is a well-acted film that pulls all the stops a high-budget period piece should, with even the naturalistic lighting reflecting an era gone by. The flies are shooed in the south and the northern grit seems to embody every scene in Brooklyn. It can be forgiven when it drags just a tad or puts things in too simplistic a way. This is the story of someone who transcended himself to become a hero of American folklore, and, in that light, a little extra polish makes the story shine a bit brighter.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)