A Movie Review of 42

NOTE: I’ve titled this “A Movie Review” because this is most certainly just one man’s perspective. Readers are free to disagree.

Synopsis of this review: This was the master’s clay in the dropout’s hands. A whimpering disappointment, 42 exchanges the impact of a complex truth for the cheap thrills of rapidfire sentimentality. But hopefully, to the uninitiated, the film’s slight glimmer of the real Jackie Robinson will be enough to transmit the epic trials of a man worthy of remembering and generate interest in the history of baseball’s most important man.

Rating: 2 stolen bases out of 5 attempts.

Review in full: I love the story of Jackie Robinson. I love the person and legacy of Jackie Robinson. I wanted to love 42, but I also love art. I love art because I love truth, and art — even when employing fictive devices — aims to communicate truth. Deeper truths. Any truths. Art, good art, gives us the tools to understand and conceptualize the world around us.

I recently watched three documentaries on North Korea. Who isn’t a little nervous, curious about the Hermit Kingdom? The first documentary was a National Geographic hidden camera expose of life and medical technology in North Korea — Inside North Korea. It created in me a sense of awe, a distanced but very real sensation of intrigue and astonishment at this cult of Kim, at this thug government, at this bizarre universe so far from my own.

The second documentary, Camp 14: Total Control Zone was about a North Korean born into a prison camp, only to escape at age 23. Shin Dong-huyk, the protagonist, describes in detail the horrors of life inside the camp, the numbness he felt watching his mother and brother die (deaths for which he was personally responsible), the harrowing nature of his escape from the camp and later the nation. It was a gripping tale, told by a handsome young man sitting on a clean wooden floor in a modest Seoul apartment. He was a relatable, forgivable, loveable man. And so, at the documentary’s end, when he complains about life in South Korea, the pressing need for money (a curious paper object he did not understand when he first escaped the prison camp), when he hears nightly about suicides in Seoul whereas the people in labor camps fought like wild animals for survival, when he admits he wants to return to North Korea, that he wants to return to the prison camp — under different circumstances though, he concedes — it challenges us. It challenged me.

The third documentary, Crossing the Line, chronicles the life, desertion, and expatriation of four Americans — specifically James “Arthur” Dresnok — following the Korean War. Watching Americans with decidedly American accents talk about the Glorious Leader, praise their decision to leave freedom in favor of tyranny — watching people, real people, that sound and seem much like myself saying things that I cannot fathom, it challenges me.

These second two documentaries, they are the worthy aspirations of writing, filmmaking, poetry, music, and any other form of art. Hey, it’s good to have entertainment. Even the steady minds of South Park admit to throwing in an episode or two of pure, harmless fun every now and then. It is good for the mind to relax.

But it is better, especially when dealing with weighty, heavy, important, powerful matters, to encourage the mind to work. It is better to force ourselves to have to rationalize. It is better to find ourselves accusing Shin Dong-huyk of suffering from Stockholm Syndrome or just being emotional. It is better to have his troubling words rattle around our minds until it produces the painful question: “Can life in the free world be such a failure?”

Questioning is the deepest, most engaging form of thought. Art should make us question.

The story of Jackie Robinson is great not because, gosh, he sure showed those darn racists! The story of Jackie Robinson is great because the racists didn’t even know they were racists. They persisted when Jackie slapped the shit out of the ball; they persisted when he stole home; they did not tip their caps to evidence because evidence wasn’t their source. It was sometimes hatred; it was mostly culture. And Jackie Robinson’s story is great not because he changed racist minds, but because they didn’t change and he persevered anyway. He struggled, and because of his struggle, future generations profited.

This movie, 42, was written and directed by Brian Helgeland. The selfsame Brian Helgeland penned, or at least approved and then directed, these words:

It doesn’t have to be this way.
We don’t have to kill each other.
We can live together. We can –

The Postman, 1997

Nobody talks like that. And nobody likes The Postman for a good reason. Because even in its creative fictive disguise, there was no truth underneath. No one bled into the script. They put words together that seemed likely to get a reaction. They did not put themselves into it. So we, the audience, cannot enter into the story either.

Helgeland’s presents Jackie’s first two years in the Dodgers’ system as a series of brief slices of emblematic struggle. By brief, I mean: No scene lasted more than sixty seconds. We spend 30 seconds in Cleveland, 45 seconds in Philadelphia, 20 seconds back in Brooklyn, 35 seconds Florida, a generous 60 seconds in Panama — you, me, we all get the point. It was nearly a drinking game.

Sentence fragments? Fine. A whole novel written in fragments? Nah. Not a good idea.

And for a movie composed of a mosaic of unhelpful, melodramatic scenes, finding space for 20 seconds of meaningful staring per each 40-second scene was nothing short of a triumph in careful, terrible editing.

Instead of finding the right story, the story that offered some powerful truth, that connected modern us with historical Jackie, that presented Robinson, Rickey, and the racist world in new and confronting lights — even if this powerful truth limited the scope and amount of Jackie’s story the movie could tell — Helgeland and his producers selected instead the scenes from Jackie’s storied career they felt would most likely elicit applause.

They cherry-picked the tear-jerking stories, loaded them deep into their cold metal clip, and then blasted them full-auto with little regard to blocking, acting, or believability. The villains are unforgiveably villainous; the heroes are unstainably heroic; the children are laboriously above average.

It was the first North Korean documentary. It was: Look at this terrible suffering Jackie endured. The movie could have been, it should have been: Jackie suffered, and wouldn’t we have been guilty too?

Posnanski, in his predictably insightful review, talks about how 42 shows Good Eddie Stanky, and little-to-zero Bad Eddie Stanky. This lack of duality, this failure of complexity, Pos attributes to the specific, emotional aims of the film. But where he sees a deliberate choice, I see a failure of storytelling. The complex and unclear story is the more powerful one.

The brilliant movie about Osama Bin Laden’s death does not end with Osama Bin Laden’s death — no, because the story of Zero Dark Thirty is not about Osama Bin Laden; it’s not the easy story of good versus evil; Zero Dark Thirty is about aggressive desire, a pursuit followed with reckless, dangerous intensity; it is about the government worker with nothing left inside or ahead, unsure of what order to give next; it is about a silent Pakistan night ripped apart by the orange-black smoke of a burning blackhawk helicopter.

The story is not about Jackie. It is about us. Otherwise, we, the audience, will keep it at a distance, like a charming or fascinating scene trapped in a snowglobe.

The first North Korean documentary was comfortable. It asked little of me; it presented this foreign display of absurdity and obvious wrongness, and I never had to squirm in my lazyboy. That was 42, but that is not the Story of Jackie Robinson.

The Story, the real one, should make us squirm. It should make us stand. We do not live in a society — whether you are reading this in America, Canada, England*, or the DMZ — cured of societal ills. By allowing this film to be merely a summary of facts about one man’s unfair struggles, the trials of Robinson remain as foreign to the viewer as worship of Kim Jong-il or Jong-un.

* I’m looking at you, Well-Quaffed Brit.

But at the same time, judging by the gasps of those around me in the theater, the applause that landed against the curtained walls, the beaming comments movie-going bathroom-goers, few people shared even my admittedly rudimentary knowledge of Jackie Robinson’s life. For those people, I am glad they know the name now. I’m glad they saw his number — emblazoned on screen not fewer than eight times in what was no doubt a joint subliminal campaign with Legendary Pictures and the MLB to increase No. 42 jersey sales.

For those who had no idea about Jackie Robinson or maybe even baseball or early baseball history, I hope — I really do hope — this movie is a good emissary. Perhaps the casual movie-goer doesn’t notice the sticky, slimy sentimentality or mind the dual-tone, non-gray conflicts.

I hope 42 is a better movie than I thought it was because Jackie sure as hell deserves the best.

***

For a better representation of both Jackie and the conflicts laid out in the film’s first 5 minutes, I encourage, NAY!, DEMAND you view this made-for-TV, pretty-good movie Soul of the Game, embedded in full, below. It’s a great representation of complexity and power 42 deserved:

P.S. We have in Soul of the Game also a MUCH more acceptable Branch Rickey, though Harrison Ford does seem to effectively mimic Rickey’s unenviable voice.




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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

24 Responses to “A Movie Review of 42

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  1. ugglas arms says:

    I thought I was the only one who would admit how not good this movie was

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  2. shibboleth says:

    I enjoyed 42 for what it was… a historical drama “based on a true story”. I’m a huge baseball fan but know little of Robinson’s trials, so I questioned how much of the story was overly saccharine or embelished. Much, I suppose. Still and all the reaction in the theater was applause, and I’ve already talked about it with a coworker who was glowing about it. I take your word that it could have been better, but I think as far as emissaries go, 42 delivers. I think the thing I’ll remember most about it, though, was Harrison Ford actually acting!

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    • And you know, if people loved it and learned from it, that’s great. That’s probably what I want most.

      Maybe my 42, my Jackie Robinson movie, the one that challenges me, is another decade away. I can wait.

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  3. Ragamuffin says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your review. Even though I am a baseball fan I have lately had to deliberately choose to learn more about Jackie Robinson as this movie drew closer. That being said, I do that with any movie “Based on a True Story”. I always want to know how well the truth was represented.

    I agree that art has to have its place and I’m more than willing to bend a few of the truth rules to be entertained. BUT-I hate it when this happens: “Instead of finding the right story,…Helgeland and his producers selected instead the scenes from Jackie‚Äôs storied career they felt would most likely elicit applause.”

    I felt played. No pun intended.

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  4. Preston says:

    Overall this was an enjoyable movie. But there were a few things that really bothered me. The running Pittsburgh joke, racism isn’t a problem because all of the dirty racists get sent to the Pirates? The actor can’t run. Much of the time he runs heel toe, and while great attention to detail was obviously spent on mimicking the way Jackie batted and lead off the base, when I think of Jackie the most memorable thing was his distinctive running style, pulling with his hands like he was swimming, this actor didn’t emulate that at all. I cringed any time they showed more than a couple of strides. The music was too loud and dramatic. The material is dramatic, it doesn’t need to be played up so much. The thing that bothered me the most was the running conversation between Jackie and Rickey about why he was doing it. I knew that this was setting up the story about player/managing at Ohio Wesleyan. But then he didn’t tell the story. He just said the kid got laid low? If you wanted a big dramatic moment talking about a young college kid trying to rub off his skin while crying “damn skin” because he’s not allowed to play because he’s black is the tear jerker you were looking for. That’s the kind of image that stays with you, it haunted Rickey for the rest of his life. Just saying he was laid low, is very underwhelming.

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  5. Evil Roy Slade says:

    Well done, Woodrum. I haven’t seen it and probably won’t, but I kinda assumed it would be something like what you’ve laid out.

    The first red flag for me was the title. It’s not about Jackie, but rather the nameless legend of ’42′. In that sense, the makers did exactly what they set out to do.

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  6. Robert J. Baumann says:

    Bradley, this is fantastic. Just saw the film last night, and have had an uneasy feeling since — one of disappointment. You help clarify a lot of things for me here.

    I didn’t prepare myself for this the way I prepared myself for Lincoln: by accepting long before viewing that the film would be full of Hollywood embellishment and clear distinctions between “good and evil.” (Actually, I thought Lincoln did a better job of creating “moral grayness.”)

    One spot that I felt let down by specifically was when Pee Wee was in Rickey’s office, reading the threatening letters sent to Jackie. I’m sure that scene could have devolved into a exploitation of grotesque racist language, but it also struck me as an opportunity to make the audience uncomfortable, and by that point in the film I was yearning for that.

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  7. I’m now approaching this film with even greater trepidation, as you’re the third source – after the New York Times and (I think) the Hardball Times – to come away disappointed for these reasons. THT (if it was them) wrote that they had been confused to find that some of the most Hollywood-perfect scenes from Robinson’s career had actually been omitted, including a perfect and accurate Oscar bait speech for Rickey/Ford that did not make the script.

    P.S. Appreciate the shout-out, but perhaps Aaron (UK) is worthier of it? I now live in Dallas…

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  8. Shaun says:

    Good review. I completely agree. 42 lacked depth. It could have been so much more. It didn’t connect with the audience. It was essentially non-threatening snapshots of things we more or less already knew about Jackie Robinson’s story.

    Even Branch Rickey, the white hero of the story, could have been much more complex than just the pius and powerful white guy who shoves it in the faces of the institutional racists. He even says, “dollars aren’t black and white, they’re green.” It was right there for the taking.

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  9. Antonio Bananas says:

    Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh exist and make a ton of money yet NPR is always beging for contributions. People don’t like to be challenged or to think. Had this movie been made more artful, less people would have seen or enjoyed it. I agree with a majority of what you said from an artistic standpoint.

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    • Anon says:

      Hannity, Beck, and Limbaugh keep their audience in mind when choosing content and presentation. NPR does as well, but their targeted audience has fewer people. Ignoring the problems of comparing three people to an organization, all four are biased and present very little to challenge their audiences.

      And yes, making something overly artful will decrease the audience size.

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  10. MSpitz says:

    Great review, haven’t seen the movie yet but I’ll keep these comments in mind when I do.

    So if I’m looking for an interesting movie/documentary to watch tonight, do I pick Soul of the Game, or one of the two North Korean documentaries?

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  11. Ott says:

    Hmm. Seemed obvious from the get-go that 42 was meant to be a hagiography. I’m not sure I get subjecting it to the standards of some other genre.

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    • That’s a fair argument, but I believe the standards of art — not a particular genre — are what’s being infringed here. There are universal aims with all artistic pursuits — whether movies, books, paintings, whatever — and 42 was made, in my estimation, with total neglect to those tenets.

      Instead, it has poured out cheap sentimentality in what I suspect was a naked attempt at safe box office success, but Moneyball already proved you can satisfy the crowds, critics, and purists in single stroke. It just takes more effort.

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  12. JoeC says:

    Thank you. It’s great to see someone speak truth to Hollywood blockbuster power and to demand more from their entertainment.

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  13. AC of DC says:

    I had no intention of seeing 42, as I fully expected it to be precisely as you and others have described, which follows the trend of historical — and particularly biographical — large-budget films: Overwrought melodrama and treacle, carefully presented to depict the world in its simplest possible interpretation, to assure the audience of the alien distance of iniquity, and to leave everybody feeling good and superior, and I don’t need or want to see that.

    Entertainment may intend to achieve basic satisfaction, and it may well be a form of art, but art is not entertainment, and entertainment is the wrong medium for consideration of humanity’s inhumanity and consequent struggles. This is why when Steven Spielberg offers to paint for us a nice, colorless picture reassuringly moralizing about slavery, or World War II, or the Holocaust, it strikes us as grotesque.

    By and large, fiction is more interesting than real life in any movie-length slice, because most people’s day-to-day real lives are bland. Thus when one has the opportunity to narrate a story from real life that is far more interesting than fiction, why fictionalize it? Because you make more money if you don’t upset anyone. Hell, that’s one of the reasons segregation persisted so long in baseball.

    I understand the defenses offered against thorough criticism of works of low ambition, especially if we do not agree that the subject necessarily freights the opus with a significance to strain to high visibility its imperfections. It is simply that as life wears and the examples accumulate, all become increasingly difficult to forgive.

    I realized some time ago that I may well have been better served to write a silly, Internet-standard “I agree” post, but sometimes you’ve just finished an 11-hour shift and aren’t firing at 100% capacity and get rambly.

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    • BronxBomber says:

      To wit:

      You can sugarcoat the bullshit, and tell me it isn’t crass –
      But it doesn’t change the fact that it came from a male cow’s ass.
      You can make a profit from a lie, choose to bend the truth –
      Just so long as you don’t attempt to tell me it ain’t uncouth.

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  14. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Haven’t seen the movie, but I found this to be a very interesting review, well written and thought out.

    I give it 5 FanGraphs out of 5.

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  15. DerekJeterGiftBasket says:

    My weekend was too crazy to make time to see it, and I am accepting that the movie will be a major dose of Hollywood fluff, since that’s what most have come to expect from a high-profile major release film. No one pays for uncomfortable, or else “Precious” would have been the highest grossing film of the decade.

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    • DerekJeterGiftBasket says:

      …or at least made a lot more money.

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      • I think Zero Dark Thirty, Moneyball, and every Pixar film have shown box office success and intellectual challenges are not mutually exclusive. Shakespeare knew how to please the uneducated, illiterate crowds and the educated nobility simultaneously.

        It’s not impossible. It just takes effort, sacrifice, personal investment.

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  16. Paul says:

    Agree with this post completely. I just couldnt get into the movie. The whole time i was like that wouldnt have happened. They really glossed over the true story really just a highlight reel showing only the good.

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