by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
1945. Brooklyn. Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) has decided to break Major League Baseball’s long-honored color barrier by recruiting a black player from the Negro Leagues. It’s decided that the player will be Kansas City Monarchs shortstop Jackie Robinson (Boseman), a WWII veteran, UCLA graduate, and noted advocate for civil rights. Rickey and Robinson both know that Baseball will resist this new development, but the old man encourages his new star to keep his head down, turn the other cheek, and show the world why he’s worthy of the job. It’s easier said than done, of course, and Robinson will rely on his wife, Rae (Nicole Beharie), sports writer Wendell Smith (André Holland), Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), and his fans in the bleachers for support in this historic season.
This was my first viewing of 42 since the theater, and while my opinion is obviously affected by Boseman’s passing (not to mention a continued search for Good Things in quarantine), I’m happy to say it’s one of the better biopics in recent memory. A good biopic is hard. It requires filmmakers to balance drama with historical accuracy in a way that doesn’t dilute either to the point where the entire project loses its integrity. Writer/director Helgeland (of L.A. Confidential and my beloved A Knight’s Tale) pens an effective script that tells Robinson’s story with just the right levels of sweet and sour. It doesn’t put on airs about Rickey’s business ambition (“Money isn’t black or white; it’s green”), but it does allow him to be a mentor. It doesn’t make Robinson into a larger-than-life, overly-saccharine God figure, but it does illustrate his intelligence, diligence, and charm. Most importantly, it’s a baseball movie that’s romantic about baseball. And how can you not be romantic about baseball?
Adam, what did you think of 42?
Going back to 42 specifically, we have to talk about the supporting performance by Harrison Ford. It’s under-the-radar a bit in terms of his filmography but also completely great. It might be because of the makeup, but he does this thing where he disappears into the character but also elevates it because of the (positive) baggage of casting Harrison Ford in the role of Branch Rickey. 42 isn’t a slog, but it’s a movie that comes to life even more in Harrison Ford’s scenes. Just like he did in The Call of the Wild from earlier this year, he brought a spark to the role which is somewhat unexpected because this was during a period where his performances were variable in how much he seemed interested. I also love that Lucas Black (aka Drift King) is in 42 as #Family to Jackie Robinson. Can we just pause for a second and appreciate Lucas Black? If I were a filmmaker, I would cast Lucas Black in every movie. He’d be my John Ratzenberger. His voice is so distinct that it’s impossible to think of him as anyone but Lucas Black and I mean that in a good way.
Rob: I’ve never seen a Harrison Ford performance where I quite forget it’s Harrison Ford, but I come pretty damn close in 42. He’s in this “agitated” mode that’s so different from the “grump” he employed in K19: The Widowmaker, for example. There’s more energy. He’s a rabble rouser. I love that shot of Boseman coming out of the tunnel where you see Ford on the field leaning on the baseball bat. Lucas Black is also really fun as Pee Wee Reese. He does the “reformed white man” thing without playing it too big. I liked his whole bit where he encourages Jackie to shower with him.
Rob: The moment with the kid in the bleachers that you mentioned is really great, and I love the way it juxtaposes with the young Ed Charles subplot. Two kids who love baseball with very different life experiences and facing very different paths forward. And yes, considering the fact that we spent an entire column beating up on the White Sox for Eight Men Out, we have to stop and talk about 42’s portrayal -- its infuriatingly accurate portrayal -- of manager Ben Chapman and the Philadelphia Phillies. The on-field incident between Chapman and Robinson was real, and it was probably a lot worse than depicted in the film. Not only was Chapman a screaming racist, but the Phillies were the last team in the National League to field an African American player (Shortstop John Kennedy in 1957) -- ten years after the Robinson incident. It sucks. It’s embarrassing. But it only illustrates the importance of Jackie Robinson Day and that of protests across the sports world, including the most recent ones recognizing Jacob Blake. No matter what your uncle yells on Facebook, sports is and will always be political.
I sought out a few 42 reviews by black writers after I finished my viewing, and one of them compellingly argues that the Robinson roles (Mr. and Mrs.) are underwritten in a way that makes them dramatically inert; essentially, they exist as symbols that allow the characters around them to have arcs without having any of their own. It’s a well-written piece about our tendency to lionize historical figures to the point that they stop being interesting, and I don’t disagree with its thesis, but I also feel that 42 is about Baseball’s change and growth as much as it is Robinson’s experience. The racism wouldn’t be new to the Robinsons. They’d have lived with it every day of their lives, whereas Baseball was going to have to see life through their eyes if it was going to change. White players had to see and react to Jackie existing and enduring in that space. In that capacity, the Robinsons ARE symbols worthy of an audience’s reverence. That said, I’d love to see a 42 made by a black filmmaker or one interested in giving its leads a bit more interiority.
Adam: If Horror Noire taught me anything, it’s to not be offended if it’s suggested I’m missing the point or uninformed when it comes to depictions unlike my own on film. It’s more important to be quiet and learn, even if my first inclination is to disagree. Each perspective has value and is most often meant with the best intentions, but the personal experience should have equal or greater weight. It’s the conversation that’s important and not one person being right or wrong. I agree with the writer who reviewed 42 and felt Jackie Robinson was underwritten. I say that because a figure of his stature could warrant the treatment Spike Lee gave Malcolm X in his biopic. That said, I think the way Robinson is portrayed and written in 42 is completely respectful and done with good intent even if it’s not super ambitious.
I don’t think Brian Helgeland would be able to make this movie in 2020, which I’m conflicted about. Anybody should be able to make anything but I think a black filmmaker (or writer) would probably make more sense for a Jackie Robinson biopic. I felt the same way with Michael Mann’s Ali. It’s a delicate subject.
Adam: I agree. The baseball sequences were much more convincing than in most baseball films we’ve reviewed. It might have happened more in the past, but I find it distracting how steals crazy directors/writers are when in the game today it happens about as often as a quality start. In movies, they act like there’s three stolen bases every inning.
Rob: Jackie Robinson steals bases with the same ferocity that Phillies relievers blow leads. So it’s definitely Mark On for 42. Reserved Seating is taking a short break, but we’ll be back later in September with Finding Nemo. Until next time…
Adam: These seats are reserved.