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Movie Review: '42'

The fictionalized film version of Jackie Robinson's rise to the major leagues is a story you should see.

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It's been a busy beginning of the 2013 baseball season for me, so it took until Sunday night for me to finally get around to seeing "42", the dramatized version of the story of the breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson.

The key word in that paragraph is "dramatized"; before the movie even begins we are told by words on the screen that it's a story based on real-life events. This is important because the film has come under considerable criticism for not telling the whole story, or leaving people out, or fictionalizing certain aspects of what Robinson had to go through as he attended spring training, played for the Dodgers' top farm team in Montreal, and then his first season with the Dodgers in 1947.

Those who make such comments miss the point. This is a Hollywood film. Thus, it tells a story that has to have a beginning, middle and end and get wrapped up in two hours and eight minutes. The story of Jackie Robinson is far too nuanced and detailed to be told in that short a time. To those who complain about things being "left out" -- if you want the true history of Jackie Robinson, watch a documentary. Or, go read Jonathan Eig's fine book on this topic, "Opening Day".

The movie's two main characters are exceptionally well cast. Harrison Ford captures the gruff, but determined Branch Rickey, the Dodger team president who appeared to be on a crusade to bring black players to the major leagues (and could well get an Oscar nomination for this role). Rickey did so in part because of something that had happened to him in his own personal life more than 40 years earlier; it's described well in this 2012 New York Times article and also in a poignant scene involving just Rickey and Chadwick Boseman, playing Robinson. Boseman captures well both the wide-eyed enthusiasm of Robinson as a baseball player, and also the side of Robinson that couldn't fight back, even when called the most vile of names. There's also a fine performance by Andre Holland as sportswriter Wendell Smith, showing how black writers, too, suffered discrimination; those of us of "a certain age" remember Smith in his later years as a television sportscaster on WGN-TV. Smith died young, only 58, just a few months after Robinson passed away in 1972.

The film's critics point out that Robinson was a much more complicated man than what's shown in the film, and they are right; in his later days Robinson had little to do with baseball, feeling that the game had ignored him. But this film isn't about that, and it's well for everyone to remember that two of the people portrayed in this film: Robinson's wife Rachel, and Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca, are still living. We have come a long way in this country, but clearly, as this Sun-Times article about Chicago high school parents who reportedly wouldn't let their kids play a game in a South Side neighborhood last week, we have a long way to go.

The movie, then, is about feelings; how Robinson felt, how opposing players and his teammates and fans felt, about a change in the way baseball was being played. Likely no one in 1947 realized what changes were to come in American society as a result of Robinson's play; it's summed up well in this article that appeared in Sunday's Tribune, quoting the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who wrote about Robinson's first appearance at Wrigley Field on May 18, 1947:

Black fans attended the game decked out in their Sunday best, noted columnist Mike Royko. As a teenager, he was at that game and recounted the experience on the occasion of Robinson's death in 1972. His black seatmates, Royko recalled, "didn't wear baseball game clothes. They had on church and funeral clothes: white shirts, ties, gleaming shoes and straw hats. I'd never seen so many straw hats."

So it's not surprising that when Robinson came to bat in the first inning, he was greeted with an outpouring of pent-up emotion, as if just seeing him in a major league uniform tapped a storehouse of joy awaiting an opportunity for expression.

"I remember the sound," Royko recalled, a quarter-century later. "It wasn't the shrill, teenage cry you now hear, or an excited gut roar. They applauded, long rolling applause. A tall, middle-aged black man stood next to me, a smile of almost painful joy on his face, beating his palms together so hard they must have hurt."

That's what Jackie Robinson meant, beyond the fact that he was also an excellent baseball player (career .311/.409/.474, OPS+ 132); Rickey wanted both a man who could play the game and help him win (and make money), and someone who had the "guts to not fight back". You don't need specifically accurate historic details -- though the movie gets the details of the baseball games it portrays right -- to understand the meaning of Robinson playing big-league baseball. To this day -- and forever, because the capacity of the ballpark has been reduced since then -- the attendance of 46,572 on that date (the baseball-reference boxscore says 47,101, but I believe that includes freebies and the lower figure is correct for paid attendance) is the largest paid crowd in the history of Wrigley Field. I think that's somehow appropriate, that an important historical milestone in baseball is reflected in this huge crowd at Wrigley.

Go see this movie if you haven't already. Yes, it's not completely historically accurate (nitpicky examples: when Robinson's Kansas City Monarchs bus stops for gas in 1945, it's said to be on "Interstate 24" in Missouri, though the interstate highway system wouldn't be created until 1956 -- most likely the filmmakers meant U.S. 24, which does go through Kansas City and Missouri; and a home run hit by Robinson in this game wasn't specifically a game-winner, though the movie implies it was), but it gets most details right, and more importantly, helps you understand the feelings Robinson had at the time, and the social change that was resisted by some, but that was clearly coming.