MOVIE REVIEW: Forced inspiration

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First Posted: 4/16/2013 8:32:00 AM

In “42,” Jackie Robinson gets the performance he deserves from Chadwick Boseman, who exudes quiet strength and dignity, the characteristics that defined Robinson’s success (and survival) as the first African American in major league baseball. What a shame that “42” uses Robinson’s historical impact as a springboard for queasy melodrama and hollow apologies about the past.

The year is 1945. World War II has ended and Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is eager to use African American baseball talent. His reasons are not quite humanitarian. There’s a black group of fans the team is neglecting and “every dollar is green.” Once Rickey’s associates pick up their jaws from the floor, they help him pore over candidates for this grand experiment.

Robinson has the talent and the real world background. As a multi-sports star at UCLA, he played with and against whites. Integrity isn’t an issue. Robinson refused to sit in the back of an Army bus in Texas, an act that led to his court martial. “He’s a troublemaker,” a wag says. “If he were white,” Rickey responds, “we’d call that ‘spirit.’”

Whatever you call it allows Robinson to endure every shade of racism in the minors before making the majors in 1947. Tolerance still lags far behind. Robinson must win over opponents, his teammates, fans, and practically any other white person. And he has to play well while ignoring the remarks of skeptics and bigots who see him as an affront to the national pastime.

Director/writer Brian Helgeland (“A Knight’s Tale”) rightly paints Robinson as a hero, but it’s the only color in his repertoire. When he captures the human side of Robinson, it’s purely accidental. The movie is an assembly of veneered anecdotes – Remember the time Jackie stood up to the gas station attendant? Or how about when he scored without touching the ball? – passed off as an intimate portrait.

When Helgeland isn’t bothering to peer into Robinson’s soul, we’re repeatedly patronized. He presents the trailblazer’s travails with an I-can’t-believe-I have-to-educate-these-rubes smugness. Robinson cannot catch a bus without it being accompanied by an orchestra’s dramatic swelling. Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager, barrages Robinson during his at-bats with language that would have embarrassed a Klansman. In case you don’t comprehend Chapman’s epic loathsomeness, don’t worry: you’ll get two more scenes confirming that fact. Legendary sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), Robinson’s chronicler, represents the common man, a gimmick that punctures Robinson’s epic resiliency. That trait is something anyone can aspire to summon.

Since African Americans dominate today’s professional sports, we don’t need a saccharine aside of how Robinson touched an athlete’s life. We don’t need golden rays of light permeating Rickey’s office, making it look like Socrates’ workspace. We don’t need a son mimicking his father’s racist language, the dialogue of the PSA. We don’t need so many inspirational speeches that they require an index – further turning Robinson into an animate commemorative stamp.

Our country’s homogenous Mayflower heritage fades with each passing day. That we have an African American president no longer feels historic. Is “42,” obvious and condescending, the best cinematic tribute for Jackie Robinson we can fashion in 2013? Some viewers will be insulted. More will be bored. The worst part, I fear, is that few will leave inspired.

Rating: W W

-To read more of Pete’s cinematic musings, visit or follow him on Twitter, @PeteCroatto.