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.

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