A week ago I saw the movie 42. It is a biopic of baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Many reviewers I read indicated that the movie lacked drama because the character of Robinson was presented, essentially, as flawless. My view was a little different. I saw the movie as flawed because it didn’t have a strong central conflict.
This isn’t a review, but some thoughts along that idea. It will contain spoilers for 42.
I don’t like the idea that the movie didn’t work because Robinson was too good. Strong noble heroes are not something we see very much of in cinema. I’m happy that a good role model is presented here. I think it could have been a stronger movie though.
I don’t want to give the impression I thought the movie was weak. But given the inspiring nature of what Jackie Robinson did it didn’t meet its mark. I never felt inspired.
It seems odd that I can say that the movie was lacking in conflict. It is a movie about the first black person ever to play American baseball. Conflict abounds! First there is societal racism. Then there is the breaking of boundaries. Then there are the specific instances of these things. Finally, the movie is a sports film. By the very nature of a sport there is conflict.
Those conflicts are all in the movie. But the show chooses another as the central conflict. When Manager Rickey hires Robinson, he tells the player that he needs to be brave enough to turn the other cheek. In the stadium, Robinson can ‘fight back’ by showing his skill. But on the street, in the dressing room and every other public venue, he must remain stoic. The movie sets up the main conflict as being between Robinson and himself. Can he take the abuse and persecution while off the field? Can he excel while on the field?
Of course, he succeeds. During the baseball scenes, he is jubilant. He grins like a Cheshire Cat as he steals bases. During the other scenes he is quiet, reserved and buttoned up. But not angry. Almost never angry.
I think the film makers were trying to honour the man. To be true to what is known of Jackie Robinson. But it didn’t make a great movie. If you set up a movie to be about a man struggling with himself then you need to show that struggle. If that kind of conflict didn’t exist in the man then it shouldn’t have been established as the core of the movie.
There are two moments when Robinson shows weakness. In the first, he is taunted in a vulgar racist manner by an opposing coach. He loses focus and swings himself out. Robinson retracts under the dugout and let’s loose some anger and despair. In another he is lying on the trainers table get stitched up after another player purposefully spikes his leg.
In both cases, Branch Rickey, the owner, comes and gives him a pep talk and pulls him through. Rickey is pretty awesome and the scenes work great as scenes. But it is still a weakness for the overall film. If the conflict is between a man and himself, then the man must resolve it not a 3rd party. (And in a movie about one of the bravest African Americans of all time having a white guy save the day twice seems patronizing. Even if factually true. )
If the movie wanted its conflict to work as stated it needed to show it. Have Robinson almost lose it in public. Or have him fail while on the baseball field. In reality, Robinson batted .297 that year. He didn’t actually get on base every time. And then have Robinson overcome it. He Caen be aided by others, but must succeed on his own.
If that isn’t true to the character, they could have focused on a different conflict. The team’s acceptance of him. Or the actual racism he faced. Or what he had to achieve to have been chosen in the first place. Or the games themselves – it could have been a baseball picture.
Or it could have been a movie about a Branch Rickey – a man set on starting to integrate baseball.
The movie has elements of all these things already. And many of the scenes featuring them are really good. Often much stronger than the ones about the central conflict. Except for the last, any one of them could have made an effective Jackie Robinson movie.
Instead there is a movie about a man with a steely jaw off the field and a joyful bounce on. It sounds like it should work, but it just doesn’t quite. But it is so close.
Eh, what do I know?