Since my sister and her husband moved out here from the East Coast, we’ve occasionally taken in a movie. It was Paul’s turn to choose, and so we found ourselves watching 42 on its first day in the theaters.
My feelings about 42 were quite similar to my feelings prior to seeing On the Road, or watching the ubiquitous previews for The Great Gatsby. Did they cast it properly? Did they do right by the story? Did they screw it up?
To answer the last question, no, they don’t screw it up. Most of the casting is fine. It’s fun to see real historical figures portrayed in a fictional movie (Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher!). There are moments that threw this Giants’ fan off for a bit: Ralph Branca is one of the good guys who treats Jackie Robinson right, but the minute he shows up on the screen, I hear “THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!” in my mind.
The problem lies in what my brother-in-law said afterwards: it was a typical biopic. Why anyone expected something different is to the point. I had gotten myself worked up about seeing the Jackie Robinson story told in a new way, when it should have been obvious what was coming. A series of events are selected to stand in for various points the film makers want to make. In almost every case, those events follow the same pattern: Jackie faces racism, Jackie doesn’t fight back in an obvious way (usually after a pep talk from Branch Rickey), Jackie beats his opponents by showing them up on the ball field, and on to the next example of racism. It is all quite uplifting, Jackie Robinson defeating the forces of racism because he has “the guts not to fight back”. The way 42 tells the story, racism in America was on its downward slide the first time Jackie stole a base.
Obviously, this is crowd-pleasing. We settle into an enjoyable pattern where Jackie defeats the racists because he’s a great baseball player, with each victory a feel-good moment for the audience. This upbeat tone is framed in part by the narrow time frame of the story. We don’t see Jackie’s formative years, we meet him when Branch Rickey decides to make him a Dodger. We don’t see Jackie in his life after baseball. We only see a sliver of his baseball career, for that matter. The movie ends with the Dodgers winning the 1947 NL pennant (feel good) rather than the 1947 World Series (feel bad: the Dodgers lost to the Yankees, with Jackie going hitless in the deciding game).
This is all understandable. Why wouldn’t they want to make an upbeat film, one that might win awards given its subject matter, but also one that might succeed at the box-office as well? But, since it’s a typical biopic, it is ultimately unmemorable, just like all the others. In the moment, it seems better than it really is; in the future, it will seem overrated. Chadwick Boseman and Nicole Beharie, who play Jackie and his wife and whose scenes together are the best part of the movie, will hopefully get more good parts, and we’ll think back to when their careers were just starting. But 42 is not a classic, nor is it intended to be a classic. For a classic might not be so upbeat, so intent on pleasing the audience, might not be as successful at the box office.
42 is safe, which is ironic, given how frequently in the film we see Robinson safe after yet another stolen base attempt. There is no attempt to stretch beyond the boundaries of the biopic genre, no attempt to break free from the formulaic structure. And since Jackie Robinson’s introduction into the major leagues was anything but safe, it’s rather sad to think how much 42 is lacking in danger.
The final credits add a disturbing coda. We are told that the “good guys” in the film were successful (Robinson, Rickey, and Pee Wee Reese all ended up in the Hall of Fame, Rachel Robinson started the Jackie Robinson Foundation) while the “bad guys” were not (virulent manager Ben Chapman was fired by the following season). It’s just one last feel-good moment, but it leaves a bad aftertaste, for it suggests that racism is behind us now, that thanks to Jackie Robinson, baseball was integrated and America, seeing the light, was no longer racist. I’m sure if Jackie was still alive, he’d have something to say about that. 7/10.