Last night, as the All-Star Break continued, WOS and I attempted to satisfy a baseball Jones with "42," the biopic about Jackie Robinson, who, in 1947, became the first African-American to play for Major League Baseball. The movie stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers' owner, who defied any number of unwritten rules to bring Robinson to the big leagues.
Harrison Ford, of course, has had an illustrious Hollywood career. Simply by virtue of playing Han Solo and Indiana Jones, one could make a case for Ford as the most successful actor in the history of movies. But he's getting older, and I suspect he'd like to make a case for himself as a legitimate actor capable of playing non-action-hero roles. Now, I personally think Harrison Ford is a perfectly capable actor and is undoubtedly capable of playing "real people"--or at least I thought this before watching "42." As Branch Rickey, Ford. . . .
Well, let me put it this way: Years ago, Michael Jordan hosted "Saturday Night Live." He did a sketch about being "the first black Harlem Globetrotter." The late, great Phil Hartman played the Globetrotters' owner, who cautioned Jordan about the prejudice he would face: "They're gonna call you names, Kid. Names like. . . 'Blackie.' And they're gonna say things like, 'Hey, look at that Blackie,' and 'Who's that Blackie?' and 'What's that Blackie doing playing basketball?'" It was pretty funny stuff. . . and every time Harrison Ford opened his mouth in '42,' all I could think was, "He's doing Phil Hartman!" Now, of course, both Hartman and Ford were "doing" Branch Rickey, but the fact that Ford's performance reminded me of nothing so much as a cartoon version of the Brooklyn Dodgers' owner was basically symptomatic of the problems with the movie as a whole.
I assume the film was generally faithful to history in its presentation of facts. And the movie dutifully checks off all the indignities we would expect Jackie Robinson to have suffered, even if we knew nothing about baseball: He is forbidden to use the restroom at a Southern gas station during his barnstorming days with the Kansas City Monarchs; he and his wife are bumped from their flight to spring training; opposing pitchers throw at him repeatedly; his own teammates are less-than-enthusiastic about Robinson's presence--some going so far as to demand trades rather than taking the field with a black man.
And yet, watching the movie feels like sitting through some dramatized and largely sanitized history lesson: We get the facts (or at any rate, the "facts'), but none of the humanity. As Robinson, Boseman shows excitement at making the Major Leagues, but we get no sense that he understands his place in history--we get no sense of how he feels about being a symbol as much as a ballplayer. And the characters are all two-dimensional: Jackie and Rickey are basically all good; the antagonistic, racist ballplayers are all bad; and the teammates who eventually grow to appreciate Robinson as a player and as a man are all likable simpletons.
It's too bad. Jackie Robinson is a great baseball story. Maybe someday someone will make a great baseball movie about it.