What makes a great baseball movie? Like all flicks, it’s got to have a compelling story that grabs your attention. Interesting characters are a must, because without them, you’re thinking more about refilling that 68-ounce Diet Coke than what’s on the screen. Intriguing dialogue follows good characters on my must-have list.
But the most important thing for a successful baseball movie is a reverent, honest portrayal of the game, on and off the field. With it, you’ve got blockbusters like “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham” and “A League of Their Own.” Without it, you’re relegated to dregs like “Ed,” “The Babe” or “Rookie of the Year.” Without homage to the American pastime, most baseball films fall flatter than a 58-foot curve. It’s not easy, which is why there are so few successful diamond-inspired films. As a fictional film manager once told us, if it was easy, everyone could do it.
Which brings us to “42,” writer/director Brian Helgeland’s Jackie Robinson biopic that opens nationwide Friday. As baseball films go, this is a well-told tale, albeit one without much suspense. We all know that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947. We know that he endured taunts from teammates and opponents, cruel racial epithets from the stands. We know that Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey was the visionary who believed that baseball talent was color-blind, even in an era where segregation was still too widespread. And we know that Robinson was a carefully selected trailblazer, not always comfortable with his new-found celebrity, preferring to concentrate on what he could do on the field instead of being the centerpiece for a discussion with political and social overtones.
Each April 15, MLB Network airs “The Jackie Robinson Story,” the biographical 1950 film starring Robinson as himself. Where that effort was more straightforward and simplistic, “42” comes at you with both barrels blazing, a torrent of abusive language that’s critical to the story. The N-word is used liberally, but in historical context and not just for shock value. The audience in the screening I attended last night at Loews AMC Cinemas in White Marsh, gasped and cringed when an opposing manager spat out the word rat-a-tat-tat style without blinking an eye. If you’ve got impressionable youngsters in your theater-going party, you might want to rethink “42,” unless you’re willing to follow it up with a frank and honest discussion of some pretty heavy themes.
There are numerous levels to the plot of “42,” as Helgeland tackles the notions of bravery, redemption, risk-taking, racism, love, faith, teamwork and respect, all weaved about what happens on and off the baseball diamond. Everything comes back to baseball - it is a baseball movie, after all - and that’s where “42” really excels.
The baseball sequences - from Robinson riding buses through Negro Leagues outposts to spring training with the Dodgers in Daytona Beach, Fla., to his time with the International League Montreal Royals to his ascension to the major leagues - are top-notch, in terms of feel, the integrity of the game and historical accuracy. Using vintage-era stadiums to transport a viewer back to the 1940s isn’t easy, and no amount of Hollywood magic is spared. The special effects of balls whizzing off the bat or out of a pitcher’s hand are simultaneously jarring and exciting. Everything from the language of the era to the flannel uniforms the players wear on screen has a aura of authenticity, as it should.
The characters are both intriguing and likeable, from Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who isn’t sure why he’s being chosen as the man to break baseball’s race barrier, to Rickey (Harrison Ford), who is equal parts savvy businessman and baseball man, with just the right amounts of stubbornness and sentimentality. The supporting cast does a credible job of not stealing the limelight while adding to the story - “Law & Order: SVU” alum Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, former sitcom star Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, John C. McGinley as Red Barber, Alan Tedyk as Phillies manager Ben Chapman and Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson both accelerate the story and play integral roles in history’s process in “42.”
My only quibble with “42” comes from the absence of any mention of Sam Lacey, the pioneering black/native American sportswriter who was a key figure in pressuring baseball to integrate. Working for the Washington Tribune, Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro-American - the most respected voices of the African American community during the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and beyond - Lacy covered the most important sporting events in the world while chronicling the Negro Leagues and its players who were prohibited from playing the game they loved in the majors. He had an open dialogue with Rickey and baseball commissioners Kennesaw Mountain Landis and Happy Chandler on the subject of desegregation. He traveled with Robinson, from spring training through the minors and with the Dodgers, unable to sit in the white-only press boxes, dining with Robinson in segregated restaurants and staying in in the same black-only boarding houses.
In “42,” it’s Pittsburgh Courier scribe Wendell Smith who meets Robinson in Daytona Beach and stays by his side - a phone call away from Rickey - through thick and thin. It’s Smith who perches a typewriter on his lap in the stands to file dispatches about Robinson’s achievements. In fact, Smith did have a pipeline to Rickey, recommending Robinson as the right man to integrate baseball. But both he and Lacy, who died at 99 in 2003, were by Robinson’s side during his trek to immortality. It was Lacy, not Smith, who was the first African American writer admitted to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in 1948. Both were recipients of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award given by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.,Y., Smith posthumously in 1993 and Lacey in 1997. Both should have been included in “42.” I guess that’s the reason for the “Based on a true story” wording at the beginning of the film.
Filmmakers, especially those who deal with historical subject matter, have a responsibility not to tinker with the events they are chronicling, just for the sake of a more smoothly made movie. But Baltimoreans know of Lacy’s role in Robinson’s rise, even if “42” chooses to disregard his important place in history.
Trivia time: Who were the last three Orioles to have worn No. 42?