The story of Jackie Robinson has been told in the movies before, notably in a low-budget 1950 effort called, reasonably enough, The Jackie Robinson Story. The title role in that film (which may be viewed, in its entirety, here) was played by Jackie Robinson himself—rather woodenly, it must be said, but with a dignified presence.
In Brian Helgeland’s oddly enjoyable new film 42—the title refers to Robinson’s number with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the only number retired by all of Major League Baseball—the role is played by Chadwick Boseman, a young TV actor previously unknown to me. Boseman bears some resemblance to Robinson, and he plays him as a stolid, assured man of unembarrassed self-regard, not looking for a fight but not afraid of one, either.
He doesn’t work overly hard to be likable, and as a result, he is. It’s a creditable turn—Boseman manages to hint at some texture and complexity to Robinson, which is an achievement since the role, as written and shot, is almost a pageant figure. The same can be said of Nicole Beharie, who gives an observant intelligence and a touch of sultriness to the all-but-unwritten role of Robinson’s wife Rachel.
Robinson’s struggle, in this telling, isn’t principally against the racist insults he receives as he breaks the color barrier in the Bigs in 1947. It’s against himself—against the agonizing temptation to respond in kind to the appalling snubs and taunts. Boseman lets us see the price of this; he doesn’t sugarcoat it.
When he offers him the job, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey tells Robinson that to accept him, whites have to know two things: “That you are a fine gentleman, and a great baseball player.” Rickey seems to have had an uncannily prescient grasp of white racial psychology, of how ordinary justified anger would seem like overscaled rage coming from a “negro.” Virtually every African-American who’s been a pioneer in a previously all-white field has had to try to avoid this without lapsing into servility on the other side.
Because of Robinson’s near-perfect navigating of these straights, his story is probably almost as well known to a couple of generations of elementary-school civics-class students as it is to baseball fans. I’m not sure that 42 adds anything much to it, aside from a devotional tone—again and again, the movie reminded me of an old-school Biblical epic.
Partly this is because of its ornately declarative dialogue, and the glossy, burnished look that Helgeland gives the images. But the movie is also overtly pious. Rickey was a devout Methodist, as was Robinson—it’s suggested that this may be why Rickey favored him—and he counsels his new player that he’ll have to turn the other cheek, “Like Our Savior.” He also says, more than once, “God built him to last” (only until the age of 53, as it turned out, but probably Rickey would regard this as sufficient).
Rickey’s perfectly comprehensible financial incentive for bringing black players to his team is noted in 42, early and often, by Rickey himself, and this seems intended to debunk a cynical interpretation. We’re meant to see that, for him, this action was really religious and moral. The movie even ends with Sister Wynona Carr’s wonderful gospel song “The Ball Game” (also used, to more ironic effect, in Ron Shelton’s interesting 1994 misfire Cobb).
It’s understandable if contemporary viewers find the idea that the integration of a professional sport, however overdue, can really carry this sort of cosmic import. But for many of us, baseball, with its weird orthodoxies and its ceremonial, Stations-of-the-Cross flow of action, always feels, in a way that no other sport can claim, like an allegory for Something Bigger.
I don’t mean to give the impression that 42 is like sitting through a requiem mass. It’s generously leavened with humor, and—as is often the case with religious epics—much of the fun comes from the character actors in the supporting parts. In good form here are Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, Max Gail as Burt Shotton, Alan Tudyk as the intolerable Ben Chapman and Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese. John C. McGinley gives his lines an amusingly fussy, euphemistic ring in the small role of Red Barber.
Maybe the true heart of the film, however, is the performance of Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey. Ford has always been a reliable star, but for most of his career, with a few striking exceptions, he’s been a leading man, not a character actor. Here, portly and fleshy-faced, with a self-delighted grin and a deep, comically ponderous delivery, Ford creates a peculiarly convincing portrait of a man of the world still ruled by his heart—a rich man who, if he were a camel, might just make it through the eye of that needle.
The realization that Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park turns twenty years old this year left me feeling pretty prehistoric myself. I was in my early thirties when the film of Michael Crichton’s bestseller came stomping into theaters, but I had been a dinosaur geek since childhood, to which the movie sent me back.
Now Jurassic Park has returned to the multiplexes, in a re-mastered 3-D version. I still love dinosaurs, but two decades have made it easier, now that astonishment at the truly convincing special effects has faded, to pick the movie apart logically, and to acknowledge the middle-class banality of its dramatics. Granting all this, however, I still say that Jurassic Park is one of the most thrilling special effects spectacles of all time, and that it remains the best showcase of computer-generated effects to date.
I say this in full awareness of James Cameron’s Avatar, which astounded so many people a couple of years ago. Avatar was an absorbing sci-fi romance, preoccupied with the human ability to disrupt nature—a theme it shared with Jurassic Park. But Cameron used the story to wow us with CGI effects which, though impressive and sometimes even lovely, were always obviously virtual phantoms. Spielberg used his rock-solid virtual effects—seamlessly blended with animatronic puppetry—to draw us into the story.
In case you’ve forgotten or somehow missed it the first time, the film concerns a theme park on an island off Costa Rica featuring real live dinosaurs, cloned from blood extracted from ancient mosquitoes trapped in amber. Prior to opening this ill-advised attraction, the founder (Richard Attenborough at his jolliest), invites several scientists (Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum) as well as his own grandkids (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello) to endorse it. A bit of industrial espionage and a power outage lead to dinosaurs on the loose.
Because of Spielberg’s brilliant timing and theatrical flair, I didn’t notice until I’d seen the film several times how vague and malleable the geography of the park is: steep retaining walls suddenly appear when they are needed dramatically, characters strike out across open country when it would make more sense to wait where they are for help to arrive. But when you’re watching the movie, Spielberg’s confident touch, and the effects, hustle you past these inconsistencies.
There are eccentric moments that still play beautifully, as when one velociraptor quixotically lunges to the defense of another against a much larger tyrannosaurus. The gag involving the rear-view mirror, which even people who disliked Jurassic Park had to admit was pretty good, is now being used in the poster, presumably to tout the movie’s new 3-D status.
But here, alas, I have to note that the re-release gains nothing in particular from the addition of 3-D. I can’t think of one scene that was enhanced by the effect in any way I noticed. Again, not that it matters—my ten-year-old, no particular dinosaur fan, joined me for the screening and was properly spellbound. With or without 3-D, Jurassic Park still has teeth.
RIP to one of the very few superstar movie critics, Roger Ebert, passed on at 70 after a bravely public decade-plus struggle with cancer.
Because Ebert was so familiar as a personality, it could be overlooked that he was a truly fine writer—the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism—with an un-showy but elegant style. He had a wonderfully sensible, unpretentious fondness for a good movie, and recognized that good movies came from all genres and levels of ambition. And, of course, he wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
All that said, I think that his finest hour may have been playing himself, opposite his old pal Gene Siskel, on this episode of the animated comedy The Critic from the mid-90s. If you’ve never seen it, I promise you it’s worth the half-hour of your life…
Check out my list, from this past Monday at Topless Robot, of the ten best sci-fi, fantasy or horror novels you’ve very likely never read.
Monday night The Wife, The Kid and I got to go to Chase Field and see Ian Kennedy and the Diamondbacks convincingly beat Adam Wainwright and the St. Louis Cardinals. Great fun. Then last night, we dined on free tacos from Taco Bell, the Snakes having scored the requisite six runs to confer this bounty upon us. May it happen a lot this season.
RIP to excellent Brit character actor Richard Griffiths, passed on at 65. Probably best known as Uncle Vernon in the Harry Potter flicks, he’s immortal to many of us as Uncle Monty in 1986’s Withnail and I.
I'm an award-winning movie critic, playwright, actor and director.
My work has appeared in publications ranging from the New Times weeklies (where I was a staff writer for several years) to USA Today, from Phoenix Magazine and Wrangler News and the East Valley Tribune to the Erie Times-News, Seattle Times and Detroit Metro Times to Rewind Magazine.
I'm that rare example of a living poet who has had a sonnet published in Weird Tales, and my poems have also appeared in Elysian Fields Quarterly.
I've acted in theatre productions in six states and the District of Columbia, and appear for about six seconds as an extra (a prison guard) in the John Waters film Cry-Baby.
I directed Shakespeare's Measure for Measure at Southwest Shakespeare Festival, and a short film called Holding Back the Dawn, based on a short story by my friend Barry Graham.
I was host of Another Saturday Night, a pop culture and film review show on KTAR radio.
I have produced, directed and acted in radio plays for NPR, KTAR and the Sun Sounds Radio service.