Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Baseball Movie with Heart

Baseball movies are as American as ...well, Apple Pie, the great American pastime (once long ago), and Harrison Ford. And in 42, we get all three plus a biography of a true American hero. Based closely on the tumultuous events of 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers' team executive Branch Rickey hired Jackie Robinson as the first Afro-American player to break the color barrier in major league baseball, 42 follows a long tradition of baseball movies, some good, some inspirational, and some just sappy.

The most famous baseball bio is PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942), a moving tribute to the Yankee great Lou Gehrig who was forced to leave baseball because of a debilitating disease which now bears his name. Its greatest asset is Gary Cooper, who invests the role with warmth and dignity. Anthony Perkins gave a riveting performance as Jim Piersall, a talented but troubled player who undergoes treatment for a bipolar condition in 1957's FEAR STRIKES OUT. On a lighter note, Kevin Kostner starred in two of the most popular sports movies ever, BULL DURHAM (1988) and FIELD OF DREAMS (1989). BULL DURHAM is a warm, earthy comic drama about a fading ball player (Kostner, never better) mentoring a talented but wildly erratic young pitcher (Tim Robbins) who's also getting special training from ball fanatic Susan Sarandon (never funnier, never hotter). Sadly, the beloved FIELD OF DREAMS is little more than a sentimental fantasy that is so strained in Americana and baseball lore that it's difficult to endure without a slop bucket at your side. And there are many more of both kinds.

The film 42 could have been just another inspirational "feel good" sports biography. Occasionally it flirts with the typical aspects of soaring Americana music, beautiful shots of American flags waving against azure skies, little boys filled with awe for their hero. But it manages to balance these temptations with  earnest, heartfelt performances from Harrison Ford as the practical, crusty Branch Rickey, a perfectly cast Chadwick Boseman as the amazingly strong and patient Robinson, and Nicole Beharie as his tough and loving wife. Robinson must face racial intolerance from Southern bigots, opposing teams, and even his own team members, and the film doesn't soft-sell the hatred. Constant eptithets, bullying, taunting hit Robinson at every turn, but he triumphs through sheer talent and his positive outlook on life. The script is straightforward but often punchy and humorous, particularly Ford's lines. And the action scenes, especially Robinson's base-stealing skills, are a visual delight. Yes, 42 could have been another softy sports bio, but it triumphs by sticking to a great story that's told with guts and glory. This is history that needs repeating, especially in these divisive times.

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