When posed the question "What is this about?" by Jackie Robinson, front-office executive Branch Rickey walked to the window, opened the shutter to let the sunlight in the dim room and gave the simple reply.
"It's about baseball," Rickey said.
But it wasn't about baseball.
"42" was about the change of our culture and the courage of one man. Robinson's journey as the first black man to play in Major League Baseball wasn't easy. But sometimes, a lot of times, the world of sports is the rare venue that can absorb the difficulties of such a paradigm shift. Sports so often are about more than just the game. That's why "42" can speak to more than just baseball fans.
The telling of Robinson's story in the movie "42" stayed broad and focused on the vantage points of those involved, especially, of course, Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman, who makes his first attempt at the big screen after several roles on TV) and Rickey (played by Harrison Ford), the man behind the scheme to hire Robinson in the first place. Teammates had to get used to playing with a black man. Opponents didn't hold back their tongues when Robinson came to bat. The team even dealt with difficulties when traveling, including one scene when they struggle to get into a hotel.
"42" director Brian Helgeland took the simple approach. He allowed the movie, in a sense, to know what it was about (in the way, say, a documentary does). While the monumental achievement Robinson made is deserving of that, there is a bit of disservice to the player himself. Again, while sports often are about more than a simple game, it was the great way Robinson played the game that made his triumph so much more effective.
Robinson was an outstanding athlete. The best scene in "42" was when he played his first International game. He reached first base, then spent the next few pitches brashly leading off, kind of smirking at the opposing pitcher all the while. He was having fun playing the game. He went to steal second and third base and eventually scored. As both a sports and movie fan, there should've been more of these fun scenes.
But fans of both sports and movies have to appreciate the production design of the film. Robinson came on the scene at a time when baseball headlines were king. The baseball fields had more of a backyard, less-tailored and more-old-school feel to them. Players had the flimsier, smaller gloves and the more baggy pants. Teams traveled in smaller, less comfortable buses instead of the charters that teams today have. The locker rooms were poorly lit and didn't have anything in the way of luxury.
It was a time when radio announcers and sports reporters were prominent figures (in the right way, not the "talking heads on TV" way they are now).The reporters, of course, had to use typewriters and pretty much wrote their stories during games. Interviews weren't these grand media-room productions. The writers had free reign in talking with the players and less procedural regulation. These touches to the movie are appreciable.
The actors of "42" seemed a little more steered than they probably should've been, but they had their moments. About the only time Boseman breaks out of the mold is when he lets loose with anger and sorrow in a hallway off the dugout after the weight of the name-calling and venomous tongue-lashing is too much to bare at one particular game. Ford comes down from the other end of that hall not only to console him while admitting he has no idea what he's going through (no one other than Robinson can truly know that), but also to remind him that he cannot let the world see him break. Because if he does, his would become an outcast, and his cause would be dismissed. Another moment where sports transcend the game itself.
Ford plays his role to perfection. At times, he's a cranky old man who is good at smushing a cigar in his mouth and complaining. Other times, he's a strong, reflective, Bible-quoting leader who won't get upstaged by the magnitude of the whole issue.
Toward the end of the film, after the season nears its end, Robinson confronts Rickey and again asks the question, "What's this all about?"
This time, the guise doesn't work. And while Rickey already acknowledged the money, cultural change, recognition and other external rewards, he reveals a personal side of the story worth waiting to hear.
It was a great reminder that these events were real, and they changed the game for the better.