Friday, April 12, 2013

Thoughts on "42"

Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey in "42"
My wife and I took in the late-night showing of "42" on Thursday.

Spoiler alert: Jackie Robinson successfully integrates professional baseball without causing a race riot.

Oh, you knew that already.

Robinson's story has been oft-told in books — I have several such in my personal library, including (among others) Robinson's autobiography, "I Never Had It Made"; Red Barber's marvelous "1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball"; and a mildly disappointing 2007 biography of Branch Rickey by Lee Lowenfish, "Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman."

"42" — as I surmised in my Monday print column this week — merely scratches the surface.

I can pick quite a few nits with the movie's off-the-field depictions, particularly the selection of Robinson as "the right man." Clyde Sukeforth, the scout/coach who brought Robinson to see Rickey for the fateful 1945 interview, had in reality no idea that Rickey intended to break the color barrier; he had been told he was looking for players for a new black team, the Brown Dodgers. Barber describes Burt Shotton, the man Rickey made manager after the commissioner banned Leo Durocher, as anything other than the grandfatherly figure he appears to be in the movie. And so on and so forth.

Nobody should imagine, after seeing "42", that they know the whole story. Indeed, there remains historical dispute about some pieces of the legend — particularly the Cincinnati incident in which Pee Wee Reese puts his arm around Robinson's shoulder. If that happened, it didn't happen in Cincinnati in 1947.

Call the movie Robinson 101. If you want more, hit the books.

But there are a lot of things the movie got absolutely right, and one of them is Branch Rickey.

I have seen reviews panning Harrison Ford's portrayal of the Mahatma. Too goofy, too over-the-top. Folks, Rickey was a man of overwhelming verbiage and dramatic presence. He was not prone to understatement (unless there was something he preferred to hide). For my money, Ford got Rickey right; indeed, he may have underplayed him some.

Other things to praise: I loved the old ballparks for the game action. Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, Crosley Field, Forbes Field — all those old gems are long gone, and the moviemakers used CGI — but it was well done.

The Durocher scene in the hotel kitchen — telling his team what to do with their petition — was exactly as I imagined it.

And the Ben Chapman stuff was ... um ... stronger than Robinson allowed himself to describe it. In that brutal case, the movie is almost certainly more accurate than the books.

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