Year Released: 2013
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 128 minutes
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The latest from writer-director Brian Helgeland (The Order) has all the makings of an inspirational sports biopic. Unfortunately, he made a bio about the wrong sports legend.
The movie explores the relationship between two giants of baseball: Jackie Robinson, who of course made history by becoming the first African-American to play the game alongside whites since the 1880s when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and Branch Rickey, the man who made it happen.
Despite being familiar ground and decades overdue, Robinson’s story is an important one. In more imaginative hands, it might’ve even been made into a classic one. Certainly Chadwick Boseman is game as the model of self-control who gives Rickey his word he won’t take the bait when racists try to get under his skin.
Helgeland’s handling of the material is simply too by the book. Between the way his script covers predictable bases (teammates are gradually won over by Robinson’s talent and character) and Mark Isham’s score supplies emotional cues subtly as a ballpark organ, nobody needs a scoreboard to know how this one will turn out. Robinson shocked the world but 42, while uplifting, offers little in the way of surprise.
Meanwhile, here’s Harrison Ford-who looks like he’s come to a Halloween party in a Galway Kinnell costume. He plays Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ business manager and a fellow my research reveals was full of surprises. I’m not sure even Helgeland could’ve failed to score with a movie about him. Consider this:
Rickey started his career as a catcher for the St. Louis Browns in 1905. He did not make Rookie of the Year, as Robinson did. In fact, he was so terrible he once allowed a team to steal 13 bases-a record which stands to this day! Sensing his destiny wasn’t on the field, he reinvented himself as a MLB executive and breaking the color barrier by signing Robinson, as it turned out, proved just one of many marks this visionary made on the national past time.
How is it not common knowledge that this one guy, by the time health problems benched him in 1955, had also been responsible for the following game changers: paving the way for Latinos in the majors by drafting future superstar Roberto Clemente; singlehandedly inventing the modern minor league farm system; conceiving the role of GM as we know it today; developing the first full time spring training facility in Florida and introducing now commonplace tools such as batting cages, pitching machines and even the batting helmet.
Hell, that’s not a movie, it’s a miniseries and I haven’t even gotten to the most mindblowing part: Remember a little film from 2011 called Moneyball? It told the Oscar-nominated story of a groundbreaking GM who turned baseball on its ear by making decisions based on statistical data instead of old fashioned measures of player skill. Guess what-half a century before Billy Beane broke with tradition in Oakland and the Red Sox hired Bill James, Branch Rickey had already been there and done that.
He not only pioneered the use of statistical analysis and, like Beane, considered on-base percentage a more salient statistic than batting average but even hired statistician Allan Roth as a full time analyst for the Dodgers in ‘47. There’s a significant difference between the experiments of Beane and Rickey, however: Rickey’s resulted in winning the pennant. Twice.
Jackie Robinson was an American hero, an athlete and activist of the highest order and a man capable of maintaining an almost inconceivable level of dignity. He deserves a movie that strives to be at least half as great as he was, a movie better than a cookie cutter Hollywood biopic like this one. If 42 tells us anything most of us don’t already know, it’s that Rickey, the guy who threw the game that historic curveball, just might deserve one too.
Posted on April 17, 2013 in Reviews by Rick Kisonak
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