Wednesday, April 24, 2013

42 (2013)

Written & Directed by Brian Helgeland

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA.  April 15, 2013  5:00PM

It would seem unimaginable that a person today would be allowed to loudly scream racial epithets at someone in public without no one even raising an eyebrow. The fact is that not so long ago, that type of behavior was widely accepted and most likely, others would begin to spit out their own additional ugly insults.

In the uplifting and inspirational film, "42", which tells the controversial story of an African-American, Jackie Robinson (portrayed in a star-making turn by Chadwick Boseman) and his difficult struggle to simply play professional baseball along side Caucasian men. This moment occurs when the Philadelphia Phillies manager (bravely played by Alan Tudyk) repeatedly shouts out every derogatory name he can think of at the player. The purpose is not so much to rattle Robinson but to remind him that he's not at all welcome in white baseball.

It all began when Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), a former ballplayer and now the GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers decided it was time to have a black player on the team. First, the ideal candidate had to be found who is not only a great player but has the inner strength to withstand and not react to the verbal abuse that will most certainly be directed at him. Jackie Robinson, a promising player in the Negro league, is selected. The plan is to first have Robinson join the Montreal Royals which was part of Brooklyn's International league in 1946. Living in Pasadena, California, Robinson heads out to spring training with his new bride, Rachel (Nicole Beharie) for support. Rickey also arranges for Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), an African-American sports writer to not only cover this ground-breaking moment but help keep a watchful eye over the player.

Motivated not only by monetary gain but a lifelong desire to do the right thing,  Rickey knew that the integration of baseball would be highly complicated nor easily accepted but still he underestimated the extreme hostility and resistance to the very idea. Even before Robinson had set foot in the locker room, many of his future teammates signed a petition against him joining the Dodgers but Rickey informs them that he would be more than willing to trade any unhappy player to another team.

Now a member of the famed ball team and given the number "42", Robinson was fully aware of what he was getting in to but failed to take in to account the personal toil it would take, leaving him feeling isolated and highly frustrated. But he manages to find the inner strength to endure as he realizes the hardships he faces are a means to an end.

"42" is set in the early stages before the civil rights movement when change was in the air as some began to seriously question the injustices placed upon minorities, regardless of whether society at large was ready or willing to adapt. The film doesn't shy away from the ugliness that comes from that fear and the desperation to hang on to convention . This point is driven home in a scene where a father and son are together to enjoy a baseball game. Shortly after Robinson enters the field, the father begins shouting the N-word as the young boy is shocked and slightly dismayed. However, as soon as the crowd begins to roar louder with additional disturbing taunts directed at the player, the child feels obligated to join the mob.

This isn't the first time Robinson's story has been told on film as the 1950, "The Jackie Robinson Story" has the ballplayer actually playing himself. That film was more of a rush-job to capitalize on the controversy but with "42", writer/director Brian Helgeland has crafted a film with a broader emotional scope and rich visual design. Mr. Helgeland has been best known for many years as a respected writer in Hollywood, responsible for such films as "Mystic River", "Man on Fire" and "L.A. Confidential" (which won him an Oscar in 1997), but this is only the third time he has directed (although technically his fourth as he kept the credit on his first, the 1999 Mel Gibson thriller, "Payback" but the studio did not release his cut of the film). Following the forgettable "A Knight's Tale" and "The Order", "42" is clearly his most impressive, filled with heartfelt performances, majestic camera-work by Don Burgess and, not surprisingly, a thoughtful, well-written screenplay although it doesn't venture far enough out of the traditional "based-on-a-true-story" format.

This may be the first high-profile role for Chadwick Boseman but clearly just the beginning of a long film career ahead. Much like what Daniel Day-Lewis had to do with his performance in "Lincoln", the actor had to dig deep to bring out the humanity of a heroic figure whose character has been shaped by folklore. While not completely successful, Boseman manages to make a compelling impression and displays a promising future. It has been a while since Harrison Ford has had a part where he hasn't coasted on his movie-star charisma but here he seems to relish the opportunity to play a character while delivering a richly nuanced performance

"42" suffers the same fate as many of the bio-pics that receives the blessing of the estate; you no longer have an accurate portrait of a flesh & blood individual but the glorified idea of who that person was. No matter. The film remains a powerful and moving tribute to one brave man who stood up to the difficult challenge of being the first, so that many would be given the opportunity to follow behind him.