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Monday, June 3, 2013

42 - A terrific movie about baseball great, Jackie Robinson

My latest movie review is on 42, which chronicles Jackie Robinson ending the race barrier in major league baseball. Harrison Ford gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Brooklyn Dodger team exec, Branch Rickey. Enjoy!

Harrison Ford shines in Brian Helgeland’s latest film about Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to break the race barrier in major league baseball. Ford is almost unrecognizable as Branch Rickey, team executive for the Brooklyn Dodgers during post WWII America. It was shocking to see him don fake eyebrows resembling cat whiskers, as well as prosthetics that thickened his facial features and gave him a burly, slunched-over frame. But it worked. With his gravelly voice and old-man shuffle, his rendition of the crusty baseball powerhouse made me forget I was watching an aged version of Hans Solo and Indiana Jones. I believe it is one of Ford’s finest performances, catapulting him from popular leading man to Academy Award worthy character actor. It will be interesting to see if the industry is equally impressed.

Even though the film tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s segue from the Negro baseball league to the minor league and on to the Dodgers, it was Rickey’s boldness and keen insight to integrate the game of baseball that carries the emotion of the film. Yes, there were wonderful moments between Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) and his wife (beautifully played by Nicole Behari), but it was Rickey’s strong, formidable character and courage to espouse his Christian values that pulled on my heartstrings. Amongst a sea of horrific prejudice that extended all the way to Philadelphia and Pittsburg, Rickey comes off as a hero in the vein of Abraham Lincoln. As an aside—I noticed the art directors cleverly displayed a set of bookends in the form of Lincoln bust’s on Rickey’s desk.

While some may scoff at comparing Rickey to a great president, the vehemence and vitriol he faced over ending segregation in baseball is not dissimilar to Lincoln’s struggle against those who staunchly defended slavery. With all the commentary today about the godlessness of our culture and the loss of Judeo-Christian values that were the hallmark of the WWII generation, we sometimes forget about the rampant godlessness of that generation’s irrational, widespread fear and hatred over the color of skin. It is always good to put history in perspective and conclude as the Apostle Paul did, that man is totally depraved, regardless of the time in which he lives.  

I was glad Helgeland didn’t include the stereotypical lynch-mob scene that is often in racial films. Instead, it was the power of poisoned speech and intimidation clouding the atmosphere that brought the point home. An agonizingly long scene where the Philadelphia Phillies Manager (played by Alan Tudyk) taunts Robinson while he is at bat was disgusting and painful, smarting like a lash from a whip. It went on and on, to the point that I was embarrassed for Tudyk as an actor. But I believe it was necessary to the story, because his words and behavior personified the mood of a nation, even though the sentiments of many individuals disagreed. I wanted to rip a hole through the theater screen and shut his mouth, or better yet, go back in time, walk out on the field and tell him a thing or two. As strong as my reaction was, it paled in comparison to Robinson’s. Ever the gentleman, he contains his emotions and unleashes his fury in private, destroying his bat in the process. I wanted to weep with him.

In my opinion, the unusual, yet close relationship between Robinson and Rickey is what drives the story. What they have is comparable to a father/son, mentor/mentee, and wise sage/apprentice maneuvering around the landmines of social prejudice and learned hatred to change the face of baseball. Rickey is full of Bible quotes, evidencing a clear reverence for God, and is quick to use Scriptural truths to garner influence among his detractors. He teaches Robinson the rules of the social game, instructing him to have the courage not to fight, to rise above the fray, and to exude the character of a Christian man at all times.

Both men love baseball and know it is only a matter of time before the racial divide is eradicated. And so they determine this battle they are in is worth the fight; they are pioneers from differing walks of life, sensing their lives are on a divine track that will change the course of history forever. Eventually, their example wins over the hearts of the other Dodger ball players, particularly  Pee Wee Reese (played by Lucas Black). Reese makes a public show of his support for Robinson by standing in the middle of the field with his arm around Robinson’s shoulders in front of a hostile Cincinnati crowd. It was one of the highlights of the movie.

There are other great moments between Rickey and Robinson, a funny discussion about mixed-race showering between Robinson and Ralph Branca (played by Hamish Linklater), and a fantastic locker-room/kitchen scene with a great performance by Christopher Meloni—all providing various perspectives on the pressure of race relations in the late 40s. I especially liked when Robinson learns from Rickey that the fruits of their efforts have taken root with the upcoming generation. Rickey has seen a little white boy playing baseball like Robinson, adopting his distinctive swing and flittering finger move before he is about to steal a base. As Rickey tells it, these children want to be black like Robinson and ride the wave of sports greatness—a clear sign that the winds of change are blowing. 

For those of you who like baseball, there are plenty of great playing sequences, a hilarious pickle run, long home run hits, slides into base, and some great steals. Overall, it is a powerful story about two great men who were instrumental in changing the tide of racial prejudice in our nation. Not much is known about Rickey in most households, but the name Jackie Robinson evokes great respect and admiration, especially from the baby boomer generation who are old enough to remember his legacy. Because of his importance to the game, Robinson is the only major league baseball player to have his jersey number retired. Every year, in honor of Jackie Robinson Day, all players wear a jersey with the number 42 commemorating his achievements. What a touching tribute to a wonderful athlete and man.

Go see this movie and spread the word amongst your family and friends. We Christians need to support great films like this and encourage future filmmakers to take similar risks like Rickey and Robinson, producing more God-fearing, life-affirming stories. Bravo for a job well done!

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