42: Right Movie, Wrong Perspective

There are some advantages in life when it comes to procrastination. One of those advantages extends to seeing movies long after they’ve been released. Seeing a movie in theaters six weeks after it opened guarantees you two things: 1) there’s a good chance there won’t be many people in the theater 2) you have about a 95% chance of getting a good seat.

So after taking my time seeing the movie “42” I finally watched it a week ago, and while there were certainly enjoyable parts of the film, it left me wanting more. It’s like going to a restaurant and only having money to buy a couple of appetizers, but you really wanted the steak entree. At the end of your meal, you may be full, but not necessarily satisfied. I felt the same way towards “42.” Good attempt, but it wasn’t the entree I was hoping for.

“42” is the story of major league baseball’s first black player, Jackie Robinson. Robinson is widely recognized around this time of year for the hell he had to put up with for integrating America’s pastime. One can’t even begin to imagine the immense pressure that was on Jackie’s shoulders. He wasn’t just representing himself out there, he was representing a race of people for better or worse, and if he failed, the reverberations would be felt far beyond the field.

When “42” starts we see Branch Rickey — the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers — sitting in his office with his aides at his side. It is here we see Branch Rickey speak on the possibility of bringing in a black ballplayer. This is significant that the movie begins with Branch Rickey and not Jackie. Though the story may be Jackie’s, we see it through the prism of Branch Rickey’s eyes.

Later in that opening scene, while trying to determine which black ballplayer currently playing in the Negro Leagues they will call up, they come to Robinson’s name. One of Branch’s aides brings up the fact that Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to sit at the back of the bus. Instead of depicting that scene, Director Brian Helgeland instead shows Rickey in his office expressing admiration towards Jackie’s stance.

Throughout the movie we see the different obstacles Jackie must go through to be accepted. From having to leave his home in the middle of the night for fear of it being bombed, to being berated by fans and opposing coaches, to gradually winning the acceptance and admiration of his white teammates. Some of it’s particularly moving as a harsh reminder of America’s not too distant past.

Ultimately though, I left the film wanting to know more about Jackie Robinson. Things such as where was he from? How did he grow up? Even things like how he met his wife are startlingly absent in this film. While I do understand the time limits when filming a movie, “42” does a poor job of fleshing out Robinson’s character beyond that of an American icon. Yes, we know he integrated the game, but why did he even choose baseball to begin with? What types of relationships did he develop while in the Negro Leagues? What about how he couldn’t even get work in the majors after he retired?

All these things are relevant, but sadly are left out. Jackie Robinson is more folk hero than a living, breathing, man whose character flaws and back story are never truly revealed in “42.” That type of perspective makes for a real good appetizer, but not quite a full meal.