The new movie about Jackie Robinson’s entry into major league baseball paints its characters with such an unmitigatedly saintly brush that Parson Weems himself might come back from the grave to say, “Speaking as the man who invented the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, fellas, that was a bit much.” Writer-director Brian Helgeland, who seems to have studied Barry Levinson’s fussy and romanticized direction of The Natural (1984) the way a forger studies a dollar bill, is a hamfisted scenarist whose didactic dialogue sounds like the script for one of those 15-minute plays they stage at history museums.
Helgeland also makes weird choices as he tells the story of the two years between Brooklyn Dodgers honcho Branch Rickey’s decision to make Robinson the first black player in the majors and Robinson’s landmark 1947 season. 42 is chock-full of historical elisions and inventions, all of them unnecessary since the actual story was so dramatic and intense it needed no melodramatic adornment. A few of the changes are actually egregious—in particular, the inclusion of a strange scene in which Jackie tells his newborn son he’ll never walk out as his own father did when Jackie was 6 months old.
As Arnold Rampersad’s exhaustive authorized biography explains, Robinson’s mother chose to leave his father when Jackie was 5 years old because of his philandering. Why would Helgeland create a false moment between father and baby that never would have happened? I suspect he wanted to have his Robinson deliver a statement about fathers not running away from their sons, which is indeed an important message, especially for the African-American community. But it was already Jackie Robinson’s burden to serve as one of the great role models of the 20th century; it’s just wrong to falsify his life story to shoehorn him into yet another role-model mold.
A major aspect that is missing from 42 is any sense of just how huge a national cultural event Robinson’s rookie season was. “He became the biggest attraction in baseball since Babe Ruth,” said the Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber. Everywhere Robinson went, he attracted crowds of adoring fans. Dodgers attendance skyrocketed; he made the cover of Time when that was itself a colossal thing; the Sporting News invented the award called “rookie of the year” just to honor him.
“In November,” Rampersad writes, “a nationwide contest placed him ahead in popularity of President Truman, General Eisenhower, General MacArthur, and the comedian Bob Hope, and second only to America’s favorite crooner Bing Crosby.”
Helgeland keeps the focus simply on the baseball diamond, although even here he misses the opportunity to capture the true drama of 1947—which featured Robinson struggling in his first few months, going into slumps, and then rallying along with his team to a brilliant finish that included winning the pennant. In 42, Robinson plays masterfully from his first at-bat to his last.
In this respect, as in all others in this hagiography, Robinson is not granted the right to resemble the extraordinary and complicated person he was—because he must be without flaw, even as an athlete. (And, evidently, literally immortal; closing bits at the end of the movie describe what happened to everyone we’ve seen onscreen, including his wife Rachel, but never mention that Robinson himself died tragically young, at the age of 53, in 1972.)
I can’t tell you whether Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson, is good or bad. I can tell you he is blown off the screen by Alan Tudyk, a great character actor who burrows himself into the role of Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies who taunts Robinson with vile racist epithets that nearly destroy the rookie’s carefully crafted composure. Tudyk is a pleasure to watch, even as he plays a vile creep, because he comes across as a real person in contrast to Boseman’s diorama stick-figure.
Still, 42 has its virtues. For one thing, it is beautiful to look at. Even though I was born four years after the Dodgers left Ebbets Field, seeing it re-created so meticulously brought nostalgic tears to my eyes. For another, playing the fabled Branch Rickey seems to have awakened Harrison Ford from an acting slumber that suggested he had moved to Brigadoon. Ford gives a hammy, twinkly sunbeam of a performance that makes you love him all over again. It was Rickey who had the great insight that the first black major leaguer would have to be a model of civil restraint and dignity in order to shame those who argued there could be no race-mixing in professional sports. And it was Robinson’s greatness of spirit that made it possible for him to shoulder the responsibility of restraining himself in the face of intolerable pressure and ugliness.
It would be all but impossible to tell this story without provoking tears and wonderment at what these two remarkable men wrought together, and 42 does both. But it could have done much more.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary,is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.