Friday, July 19, 2013

Strike Three: Brian Helgeland's 42

It’s curious that most American films about baseball, arguably the country’s national sport, have little to do with baseball. It doesn't matter whether you're watching Pride of the Yankees (1942) or The Natural (1984). You never get to fully comprehend what makes the game such a clear mirror of the culture that created it because the movies never want it to be one. Instead, baseball ends up as an inspirational tool to tell tired moral dramas of personal triumph. In The Natural, for instance, based on the 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud, Robert Redford gets to hit a ninth-inning home run to save his troubled team as well as his own corrupted soul. (The original novel, on the other hand, had quite the opposite conclusion.) It’s as though baseball heroes need to undergo their own secular Stations of the Cross in order to reach individual redemption. In Field of Dreams (1989), Kevin Costner gets to heal the emotional and generational rift between him and his dead father by having his dad's spirit come back to play catch with him. In dealing with the scandal of the 1919 Chicago White Sox players fixing the World Series, Field of Dreams (based on WP Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe) airbrushes out of its story the more troubled, uncomfortable aspects of baseball’s past by portraying the participants of the scandal as innocent victims. (The picture even shamelessly features a black journalist talking worshipfully about baseball being the one constant in American life when, in fact, his race was kept out of the major leagues for half the century.) 

Rather than examine how the game has both ignored and led the political and cultural changes in America, most movies about baseball resist the ties that bind the game to the nation's character in an effort to win over the mass audience with stories about heroism. Baseball has certainly had its iconic heroes, from Babe Ruth to Ted Williams to Cal Ripkin (just as it has had its tainted ones, from Ty Cobb to Pete Rose to Barry Bonds), but, in movies, we rarely get to see what sets those individuals apart from the rest of us. There's a desire to make them seem ordinary, as though this contrived egalitarianism would make us identify with them more strongly. One baseball movie that did truly confront the complexity of our celebrity worship, Ron Shelton's bracing Cobb (1994), about the violent and racist clutch hitter Ty Cobb, was ignored by audiences and critics alike (just before, ironically, O.J. Simpson's trial would capture national attention).

Jackie Robinson

There is perhaps no baseball story more worthy of recounting, however, than Jackie Robinson's. Robinson was the first African American who broke Major League Baseball's colour barrier when he was invited to join the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. For years, a number of directors (such as Spike Lee) have been eager to tell that story, and many (like Robert Redford) almost got to make it. Brian Helgeland's 42 (which came out last Tuesday on DVD) gives Robinson the first on-screen treatment since Robinson played himself in the rather wan The Jackie Robinson Story in 1950, or Andre Braugher who did in the 1990 TV drama The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson. 42 painstakingly attempts to get the facts right, shows us how Robinson ended baseball's Gentleman's Agreement (there was no official statute banning blacks from baseball, just a universally accepted and unwritten rule which no club owner was eager to break) only to endure endless abuse for doing so. But the picture misses the bigger story. Helgeland, who showed a gift for dramatic complexity as the writer of L.A. Confidential, Conspiracy Theory and Payback, turns Robinson's historic narrative into a square and dull after-school special. 42 does more to assuage the white guilt of those who barred black players from the game than to demonstrate how Robinson's efforts actually affirmed black America, both bringing joy and triumph and preparing the ground for racial integration in the coming decades.

Although the picture doesn’t span Robinson’s entire career, concentrating only on his play in the minors for the Montreal Royals and his first season helping the Dodgers win the 1947 pennant, the dramatic arc of the picture seems even punier. Helgeland essentially avoids the social and political context of a growing black militancy after the Second World War, the kind that would ultimately lead to the Civil Rights struggle. (One black soldier who wanted to play the game once said, “If we are able to stop bullets, why not balls?”) The earlier achievements of boxer Joe Lewis and Olympic track star Jesse Owens also helped set the stage for integrating black athletes into sports that were dominated by whites, yet Helgeland opts for the more obvious and sentimental melodrama where one noble black man stands up against the racism of America.

Chadwick Boseman & Nicole Beharie
Chadwick Boseman (from the 2009 TV series Lincoln Heights) is a smart choice to play Robinson – he demonstrates Robinson's agile flair on the base paths where he could control the pace of the game with his guile. But the picture lacks the personal dimension that could show us what made him the kind of dynamic player that he was. (Robinson's base stealing, for example, came right out of his time playing in the Negro Leagues where they emphasized a more aggressive style of game than in the Majors.) Boseman shows a relaxed and intuitive rapport with Nicole Beharie as his wife, Rachel, but their married life is so chaste it could have been conceived by Norman Rockwell. But the worst casting is Harrison Ford as Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who Robinson claimed did as much for American blacks as Abraham Lincoln. Ford, unfortunately, seems to think he’s playing Will Rogers with all his homespun wisdom. Yet 42 never dramatizes how Rickey’s desire to desegregate baseball came out of his sharp business sense as much as his religious ideals. Rickey understood as well as any owner that there were dozens of star athletes in the Negro Leagues and that if he were the first to integrate he would be able to get some of the best players for a good bargain. Ford's Rickey spends more time pealing off pearls of wisdom that resembles husking corn.

Harrison Ford & Chadwick Boseman
Overall, Helgeland fails to give 42 the kind of satisfying shape that could show us how Robinson overcame the racial abuse to play his best ball. When Philadelphia Phillies’ bench boss, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), taunts Robinson endlessly with horrific racist slurs, the scene simply draws attention to itself. Chapman's tirade suggests that if only the game could only get rid of such vile crackers, baseball would be a better sport. You’d never know from 42 that the racism of white players was also based on the notion that if the Majors were integrated many of them would lose their jobs because of the skill of the black players coming out of the Negro Leagues. In its own benign way, 42 patronizes Robinson’s achievements and puts them on a pedestal rather than delving into questions of why baseball waited so long to integrate.

While watching the picture you can't escape the feeling that 42 is playing it safe in order to find appeal with a mass audience that doesn't wish to consider those unsettling issues of race and racism. Once when Jackie Robinson helped the Montreal Royals win a championship, he was chased for blocks by adoring fans. He said that it was probably the first time a black man was chased by a white crowd that didn't have lynching on its mind. All through Robinson’s career, up until his death in 1972, he never backed away – even when joking – from the uglier implications of what it meant to be a black baseball star who excels in a culture that refuses to accept him. 42 tries to be a genial picture that means well, but it lacks the shrewdness of Robinson’s fortitude. If Robinson had the moxie to steal home, 42 never gets on base.

- Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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