The title of the Jackie Robinson film biography, “42,” refers to the baseball pioneer’s uniform number, not the number of years it has taken to bring the drama to the big screen.
The long-anticipated tale of Robinson’s ordeal in breaking major league baseball’s color line finally appeared in theaters last week. It’s worth the wait to see a very good if not great movie — compensating for its shortcomings in character development with solid acting and storytelling and exceptional attention to detail.
Robinson’s saga was actually filmed once before — with Robinson playing himself in the cheaply made 1950 production, “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Since the film sanitized the story and Robinson, as an actor, could be charitably described as convincing in the action scenes, it is seldom shown today.
Spike Lee had planned to write and direct a remake starring Denzel Washington in the mid-1990s. Astonishingly, given Washington’s box-office clout, this project was unable to acquire adequate financing.
Robert Redford then floated the possibility of directing a Robinson biography in which — after what undoubtedly was a worldwide casting search — he determined the actor most capable of portraying Branch Rickey (the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who brought Robinson to the majors) was Robert Redford. The movie financiers may have rejected this version on general principles.
The project eventually fell to writer-director Brian Helgeland, perhaps best known as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of the 1997 drama, “L.A. Confidential.” He does justice to the subject.
Unlike most sports movies, “42” bats close to .900 in historical accuracy.
Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman is accurately depicted as the most virulent racist that Robinson encoutered. Dodger manager Leo Durocher’s attempt to head off a team-wide insurrection by lecturing his players on the inevitability of integration is lifted almost verbatim from Durocher’s autobiography. Even such a seemingly minor detail as the name of Rickey’s secretary is correct.
There are a few factual quibbles. Dodger pitcher Kirby Higbe, portrayed here as a leader of the team’s anti-Robinson faction, always claimed he was the one who ratted on his co-conspirators to team management. Durocher’s one-year suspension for baseball was more complicated than simply having an affair with married actress Laraine Day (whom he eventually married), but telling the full story would have slowed down the film’s narrative.
The relatively prominent role afforded to Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca is somewhat puzzling, until it was revealed that (as one of the few surviving members of the 1947 Dodgers), he helped provide background information for the screenplay. Needless to say, Branca’s greatest claim to fame — serving up the home run ball to New York Giant Bobby Thomson that cost the Dodgers the 1951 penannt — is never referenced.
For the most part, however, Helgeland gets the details right. He also scores high in casting.
Relative screen newcomer Chadwick Boseman, while lacking Washington’s acting range, closely resembles Robinson and does a good job of suggesting the inner fire he was expected to contain for the good of the cause.
Viewed by some as a principled visionary and by others as a sanctimonious, money-hungry windbag, Branch Rickey is one of the most complex figures in sports history. Helgeland’s screenplay predictably offers the more benign view of his character, but it still takes a skilled actor to bring Rickey’s varied qualities to life.
Harrison Ford, whom at first glance seems only a slightly more credible choice than Redford, is surprisingly equal to the task in a role I had long envisioned Robert Duvall playing. It wouldn’t be shocking if he received a supporting actor Oscar nomination at year’s end.
There are also good supporting turns from Christopher Meloni as Durocher, Andre Holland as black sports writer Wendell Smith and John C. McGinley as legendary Dodger announcer Red Barber (although the Mississippi-born Barber’s struggle to accept Robinson is ignored here).
In cramming the screenplay with real-life incidents, Helgeland sacrifices some in-depth characterizations. Robinson’s widow always claimed that the torment her husband endured contributed to his early death. There’s little hint of that in this film.
Rickey’s motive in breaking the color barrier isn’t revealed, in almost perfunctory fashion, until late in the going.
Part of me still wishes that Spike Lee had made this film. It almost certainly would have been an angrier movie, probably with fewer sympathetic white characters. But, as he demonstrated in “Malcolm X,” Lee could have provided the epic vision that the current version lacks.
From an entertainment standpoint, however, “42” is hard to beat. Like Jackie Robinson himself, this movie is All-Star caliber.