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Earnest '42' Buffs Up A Golden Baseball Moment

Apr 11, 2013
Originally published on April 12, 2013 3:20 pm

This Monday, every player in Major League Baseball will wear the same number on his jersey: 42, which was Jackie Robinson's number when, in 1947, he became the first black player in the majors, playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Today, baseball celebrates April 15 as Jackie Robinson Day. But 66 years ago, not everyone saw his hiring as cause for celebration — and the earnestly grandiose biopic 42 means to illuminate that history-making moment, in which racial vitriol met its match in a ballplayer who let his talent do the talking.

Not without a struggle, of course. When Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, in a pitcher's mound worth of makeup) tells a promising Negro League shortstop (Chadwick Boseman) that he's hoping to hire him to play at Ebbets Field, he does not make shattering an eight-decade tradition of segregated baseball sound like it'll be a walk in the park.

"People aren't going to like this," Rickey growls at the rookie by way of urging him not to take the bait when he gets baited. Better, says the GM: He should turn the other cheek and win by playing great ball.

The 26-year-old Robinson wants clarification — "You want a player who hasn't got the guts to fight back?" — and gets it in almost the same words the real Jackie Robinson got when he played himself in the 1950 drama The Jackie Robinson Story: "No, I want a player who has the guts not to fight back."

That took a lot of guts, what with death threats, jeers from the stands, resistance from white teammates and baseball executives determined to bar him from their parks. Writer-director Brian Helgeland lays out the history in bold, clear strokes, with little nuance but lots of atmosphere.

It helps that this was an era when color commentary was still colorful; here, much of it is provided by John C. McGinley, doing what longtime Morning Edition listeners will recognize as a fine Red Barber impression.

Under Barber's watchful gaze, Robinson endures injuries, racial slurs and viciousness, all of it on one side. And all of that will build sympathy for the talented rookie, growls Rickey at one point, in a line that sounds like Helgeland explaining how his movie works.

And sure enough, the writer-director never lets Boseman play Robinson for anything other than saintly nobility, and if that's not inherently interesting, it would still be hard to watch 42 without feeling protective of its hero as prejudice spews so openly.

Or without being heartened when other characters "evolve," as it were: Kentucky boy Pee Wee Reese, for instance, throwing his arm supportively around Robinson's shoulder and standing with him at midfield as a Cincinnati crowd jeers (a real-life incident), making a case for being on the right side of history.

As he's doing that, you'll hear the score doing plenty of heavy lifting, putting a sort of musical halo around Robinson's every move. Definite overkill — gilding the lily, though it's all but irresistible. As is the tug of 42, a profile in real-life courage that would be stronger as a movie if it weren't quite so intent on underlining teachable moments.

"Maybe tomorrow," says Reese, "we'll all wear 42, so they won't tell us apart."

Shameless, sure. But effective.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This Monday, every player in Major League Baseball will wear the same number on his jersey: 42. That was Jackie Robinson's number when he became the first black player in the majors playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Baseball now celebrates April 15th as Jackie Robinson Day. But 66 years ago, of course, not everyone saw his hiring as cause for celebration. Critic Bob Mondello says a new movie called simply "42" is about a history-making moment in sports that pitted racial vitriol against a man who let his talent do the talking.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey tells a promising Negro League shortstop in 1945 that he's hoping to hire him to play at Ebbets Field, he does not make shattering the long tradition of segregated sports sound like a walk in the park.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "42")

HARRISON FORD: (as Branch Rickey) People aren't going to like this. They're going to do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse and they'll hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow and they'll say the Negro lost his temper. Your enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground.

MONDELLO: Twenty-six-year-old Jack Robinson wants clarification.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "42")

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (as Jackie Robinson) You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?

FORD: (as Branch Rickey) No, I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back.

MONDELLO: That took a lot of guts in the 1940s, what with death threats, resistance from white teammates and baseball executives who want to bar him from their ballparks. Writer-director Brian Helgeland lays out the history in broad, clear strokes, with very little nuance but lots of atmosphere, gorgeous digital recreations of long-gone ballparks, for instance. And it helps that this was an era when color commentary was still colorful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "42")

JOHN C. MCGINLEY: (as Red Barber) This game is just as tight as a new pair of shoes on a rainy day. Casey goes into his wind-up...

MONDELLO: Perk for longtime NPR listeners: That's John C. McGinley doing a fine Red Barber imitation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "42")

MCGINLEY: (as Red Barber) Robinson is down. (Unintelligible) stroked him high up on the leg and he is down.

MONDELLO: Injuries, racial slurs, viciousness, that's all on one side, will build sympathy for Jackie Robinson, growls Harrison Ford's Rickey at one point, a line that sounds like Helgeland explaining how his movie works. He never lets actor Chadwick Boseman play Robinson for anything other than saintly nobility. And while that doesn't make him very interesting dramatically, it would be hard to watch "42" without feeling protective of him as prejudice spews or without being heartened when other characters evolve as it were.

Kentucky boy Pee Wee Reese, for instance, throwing his arm supportively around Robinson's shoulder and standing with him at midfield as a Cincinnati crowd jeers...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "42")

LUCAS BLACK: (as Pee Wee Reese) Thank you, Jackie.

BOSEMAN: (as Jackie Robinson) What are you thanking me for?

MONDELLO: ...making a case for being on the right side of history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "42")

BLACK: (as Pee Wee Reese) I got a family up there from Louisville. I need them to know. I need them to know who I am.

MONDELLO: You can hear the score is doing too much heavy lifting here though it's irresistible, as is the tug of "42," a real-life profile in courage that would be even more inspiring if it didn't keep trying to knock teachable moments out of the ballpark.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "42")

BLACK: Maybe tomorrow we'll all wear 42. That way, they won't tell us apart.

MONDELLO: Not tomorrow but Monday. Shameless, sure. And effective. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.