42 at bat
The minute I saw Engel stadium onscreen in “42,” objectivity went out the window. There’s just something about seeing a familiar sight on the big screen with an audience full of local Chattanoogans, that elevates a film beyond its flaws. Maybe it was the smattering of applause that broke out multiple times during the film, the cheers and hoots when Jackie Robinson walked down the tunnel at Engel for the first time, or the energy the audience gave back to the film in droves. Maybe it was searching the background for familiar faces (famed UTC education professor Dr. Merwyn McCoy is clearly visible in his role as a newspaper reporter, but my six hours on set didn’t warrant any screen time). Maybe it was simply seeing a good film about baseball with an enthusiastic packed house. Whatever the case may be, seeing “42” was an exciting experience, one that I’ll remember for a long time.
Baseball movies lend themselves to raw emotion and inspiring tales. Part of it is the nostalgia factor. Despite its falling popularity in modern times, baseball is still the nation’s pastime. It always will be. The diamond, the crack of the bat, the cheer of the crowds, the stories, the history—these things are all so ingrained into American consciousness that it is inseparable from our sense of self. It’s part of the Norman Rockwell idealism that permeates our national identity. Not only that, but baseball has never been better than during the 1940s and ’50s. It was a time before strikes, before multimillion dollar contracts, when teams traveled in buses and had funny names like Who, What, and I Don’t Know. Mix into this a man overcoming segregation and a nation standing up to take notice and you have a powerful story that appeals to any American audience. Baseball loves an underdog and Jackie Robinson certainly had something to prove.
“42” has the tendency towards speeches and hero worship, which is something of a drawback when it comes to a biopic. There is little time spent on who Jackie was off the field, beyond being a good husband and father. He doesn’t appear to have any flaws or make any poor decisions. Some might find the portrayal disingenuous; Robinson was human after all, and a good biopic should at least try to show the person fully, without judgment.
It seems that director Brian Helgeland has so much love for the man that he couldn’t stop himself from making him overtly courageous. For many fans, the depiction is well deserved. However, had the filmmakers allowed the heroism of Jackie Robinson to show through without explicitly stating how noble and important he was, the film might have been Oscar quality. A little understatement would have served “42” well.
Of particular note, at least among the actors, is Harrison Ford. This is likely the best performance he’s given since “Regarding Henry.” Here, he isn’t the smug hero of Indiana Jones or Han Solo or a lead romantic interest. Instead, Ford creates a believable character in Branch Rickey, the grizzled Methodist owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The audience finally stops being aware that he’s Harrison Ford and accepts him as a character. It is impressive for a personality like Ford to disappear into someone else. Chadwick Boseman is effective as Robinson, but should have been given more to work with. Boseman has talent and deserves an opportunity to show how good he really is. I left the film not knowing any more about Jackie Robinson than I did when I went in. Biopics should strive inform as well as entertain, providing the actor with rich material from which to draw. However, the production design is exceptional and detailed. This is a film that looks and feels great.
None of the above criticism matters though, because I loved this film. “42” was huge for Chattanooga and critical in improving and renovating an important landmark in the city. The fact that Engel Stadium featured so prominently in a full-length Hollywood film—one that will likely do well at the box office and be more or less well reviewed—can only be a good thing for the city and the film community here. If we can get our legislators to stop taking food from poor elementary school kids and instead focus on making Tennessee an attractive place for the industry, Chattanooga could become a prime filming location. We’re called the Scenic City for a reason. There are a lot of people working behind the scenes—very hard—to make this happen. They need support. Let’s hope “42” is just the beginning.