While we here at VEB await for the start of the baseball season, whether that wait be a month or a full year, we are going to periodically watch classic baseball movies. The purpose of VEB Movie Club is quite simply for us writers to watch classic movies we missed and see what exactly we have missed. Sometimes, we’ll watch a movie we haven’t watched since we were a child. As a counterpoint, we will also feature a writer who has seen the movie and remembers it well.
Gabe: Today’s movie for our very first VEB movie club is 42, the biopic about Jackie Robinson’s struggles to join the MLB. I am playing the role of someone who has never seen it, because I have never seen it. This has been slightly purposeful I admit. I did not and do not have high expectations for this I will confess. I expect a watered down Hollywood biopic that should be better than it is given the subject. But low expectations can be a good thing sometimes! Movies can surprise you. Without spoiling Heather, playing the role of having seen the movie, will I be surprised and what are you most looking forward to?
Heather: Gabe, I do not want to set your expectations too high, but I think it is safe to raise them a little. The film was pretty well-received when it was released back in 2013. I have only seen the movie once a few years ago, but what stands out to me is the acting. 42 has some popular players involved, including the King of Wakanda himself Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and the man behind Han Solo, Harrison Ford, stars as Branch Rickey. Both were praised for their performances. Robinson’s widow, Rachel, was also involved in the film’s production to advise in the portrayal of her late husband. I think that really shines through in the final product.
I don’t think you will be surprised by the movie, but I do think you will enjoy it. The movie isn’t necessarily about baseball — baseball is more of a plot device used to tell a far greater story — but there is quite a bit of baseball in it still. At its core it is a story about great people overcoming great odds, plus baseball. Not much to dislike about that!
We watched this movie at around the same time, so that when we both finished we would have a discussion. The following is the discussion that follows the movie. I don’t know how necessary this is, but this is your standard spoiler warning, although...not sure this movie needs a spoiler warning.
Heather: While the movie is by no means exceptional, it is enjoyable. There are many paths to take when telling the story of a man as impactful as Jackie Robinson, which means in the end, most are destined to fall short of truly capturing his legacy and this movie is no different. To me, the movie should have made me as the viewer come face to face with the fierce dilemma Robinson confronts in his reluctance to be a role model in a world that so desperately needs him to be one and the sacrifices that requires of him. This is a huge point in the movie, but it doesn’t quite make the audience uncomfortable enough to be able to feel Robinson’s struggle and pain. There is a big emotional scene with Rickey and Robinson in the tunnel under the dugout after the Phillies manager just berated him with a variety of disgusting insults. Jackie, fed up, but unable to stand up for himself because of his responsibilities to hold himself the highest standard possible to pave the way for future players like him, goes into the tunnel and smashes his bat against the wall. He has doubts about his ability to withstand this kind of torment quietly. Rickey gives him a pep talk, explaining to him that this isn’t just about him and that he cannot fail. It should be impactful, but since this is really the first time we have seen Robinson accosted so fiercely, the moment does not resonate as strongly as it should. There are other moments that illustrate the opposition Robinson faced, like the hotel in the south turning away the entire team, or Eno Slaughter cleating Robinson at first base, but they come after the dramatic scene where Rickey encourages Robinson to continue on. These moments are not used to build on the narrative of Robinson’s personal struggle and are instead used a vehicle to earn him the respect of his white teammates.
The portrayal of Rickey in the Jackie Robinson story is always a tricky one to get right. It is hard to know how much credit to give Branch Rickey for signing Robinson, but the movie seems to balance it well. Rickey does appear to have some ethical motivation, but the movie does not hide the fact that winning baseball games is the driver.. “Mr. Rickey, why are you doing this?” Robinson asks. “I’m in the baseball business,” Rickey responds. And Robinson understands that too. Throughout the movie he expresses his desire to just play ball. “It’s about gettin’ paid,” he tells a reporter before his first game with Montreal.
Those are kind of half truths though, aren’t they? They have to be. Throughout the movie baseball is said to be the bottom line, and winning is primary motivator, but with so much at stake, that can never be. In Cincinnati Pee Wee Reese exemplifies this as he puts his arm around Robinson in front of a booing crowd. Nothing can just be about baseball, not anymore. The movie ends on a high note, with the Dodgers winning the pennant, but more importantly, the team accepting Robinson, even if the rest of the world hasn’t yet.
This is why I like it. It makes you feel hopeful and good. It is a story of strength and love — the movie often cuts to scenes of Robinson and his supportive wife, Rachel. It is a story of triumph in the face of great odds. While the story could have been even more powerful had the movie shown those odds in greater detail, I can still feel the impact and appreciate everything Robinson overcame. It is the story of a reluctant hero accepting his role to make the world a better place.
Gabe: First off, I will say that while I wouldn’t say the movie surprised me, it was well-done, except there are a few “Hollywood” things that irked me a bit. I didn’t really like Branch Rickey consoling Jackie after he gets berated by Ben Chapman to be honest. You’re absolutely right that it doesn’t land as hard as it should, because we as an audience have almost been shielded from what Jackie in real life would have been getting. But the scene in the dugout just didn’t ring as something that happened to me. Since both Branch and Jackie are dead, we have no way of really knowing either, but while I’m sure Jackie lost his cool and started breaking his bat and I’m also sure that he was on the verge of quitting or at least wanting to quit because everything was too overwhelming, I very much doubt that Branch Rickey personally consoled Robinson in the dugout hall and personally convinced him to go back on the field. Seems unlikely to me, and while I don’t need 100 percent realism in a movie like this, if something seems purely fabricated for Hollywood purposes, it makes the rest of the movie look less real too.
My favorite part of the movie is probably the first hour or so, with the movie doing exactly what it is trying to do in the first spring training game that Jackie plays, where the pitcher walks him and then he steals two bases and then gets balked home. I don’t even care if this part is true. It was great. Helped convey the joy of watching Jackie, felt triumphant, and most importantly felt like something that basically could have happened. Did it happen in his first ever spring game for his first ever plate appearance? Probably not, but who cares? So that was my favorite part. I also liked the scene in his first game, when the National Anthem is being played and there’s a shot of Wendell Smith (as played by Andre Holland, who’s great) and he stands up proudly and in what I can only describe as “defiance” like no I am American too and it’s pretty subtle. The shot of Jackie later in that same scene with the Anthem playing was a little harder to read, but I interpreted it as him not necessarily feeling the same way, but he looks a little scared and very nervous, almost like the only thing on his mind is playing well. So I appreciated that little part of the movie as well.
Second half of the movie lost me a little though. Everything was too easy. Having Jackie and the Pirates pitcher at the end jaw was... kind of cheesy to be honest. I don’t know, most of the ending is cheesy to me. If anything deserves to be cheesy I guess, it’s this, but like I said, the movie was losing my interest. A large portion of the cheese factor is the score which is fully in “generic inspirational sports movie” mode. It’s too loud at times and wants to underline how we should feel too much. I wasn’t a fan of the score if you can’t tell.
Other small things that bothered me: the stealing scenes were off, as in the pitcher would be done with his windup and the ball would be heading towards first, it would cut to Jackie and he would just then start his run. Small thing I know, but the movie had him breaking way too late. Another small thing: Branch Rickey in the beginning reading newspapers talking about him was a little hard to believe - yeah he was coming off a bad season, but at this point Rickey had a ridiculously good reputation thanks to his work as GM of the Cards and in fact had two other winning seasons prior with the Dodgers. By the time Jackie was actually signed, the Dodgers went 87-67 and then won 96 games the year before they Jackie debuted. Neither are acknowledged in the movie for obvious reasons, but it sort of made it seem like Branch was on the hot seat so to speak when the reality was the opposite: he couldn’t get away with signing Robinson if he had a worse reputation as a GM.
Oh yeah and another small thing, but every time Jackie hit a home run or flyball - every time - he stopped and stared at it for a while, which - I admittedly don’t know the 1947 unwritten rules, but I can’t imagine players liked that then. I understand visually, Jackie just sprinting to first doesn’t quite have the same cool shot, but seems like it would have been more historically accurate. I didn’t have time to praise the acting, but Heather you’re right about that too. There’s just not much I can say beyond the acting was great. Christopher Meloni really made the most out of what had to be like 10 minutes of screen time, but it felt like he was actually in half the movie. His presence was definitely missed in the second hour, although necessary for the historical purposes. And of course Chadwick Boseman is great, never making the viewer feel like he’s ACTING, which is something some historical dramas can be guilty of. And Harrison Ford actually giving a shit is a real pleasant surprise, as he’s basically unrecognizable, no small feat.
Heather: I tried to look up things to see if they are historically accurate, but for most of these things that is difficult to prove. I imagine the film relies heavily on a biography of Robinson (Great Time Coming, by David Falkner). I agree that a lot of things seemed to be over-dramatized (especially with that score!), but like you said, it is a movie so that is somewhat understandable. My favorite part of the movie is actually when Wendell and Robinson are in the car driving away from what seemed like it could be lynch mob forming. Wendell finally confesses what is going on and Robinson bursts out laughing admitting he thought he had been cut from the team.
Gabe: Yes! I just enjoyed the whole spring training section of the movie a lot. Making sure to include Wendell as a character and showing his struggles alongside Jackie are absolutely the best choices the movie made. When he actually plays in the major leagues is where the movie becomes too “Hollywood” for lack of a better word. But I think this is a reasonably strong spot to start in our VEB Movie Club and I encourage the comments to share their own thoughts on the movie if they’ve seen it.