Thoughts upon seeing "42"

Warner Bros. Entertainment

I kept waiting.

Last night I saw 42 the first chance I got, and I kept waiting to hate something. I'd resolved to avoid reading any reviews before I saw the movie, but my curiosity got the better of me and I read four or five of them earlier this week and they all said basically the same thing: Pretty good, but short on subtlety; earnest to a fault, if not downright hackneyed.*

* Well, almost all of them said that. This review says it's the worst movie since Plan 9 from Outer Space.

You know what? They're all right. The movie does often lack subtlety. Occasionally it's even hackneyed. Especially the swelling music, which betrays the someone's mistrust of the inherent drama of the material. Which is frustrating because the material is ... even more than pretty good, by my lights.

You have to understand, the Brooklyn Dodgers helped make me what I am. When I was 18 years old, in the space of just a few days I was utterly captivated by two books: The Bill James Baseball Abstract and Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was those two books, along with the Kansas City Royals, that turned me into an aspiring whatever-I-am-now. Since then, of course, I've read the story of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and all the rest of it ... oh, maybe a few hundred times in nearly as many books?

In one sense, this movie wasn't made for me. You make a movie just for me, and you'll go broke. This movie was made for people who have heard of Jackie Robinson and maybe even Branch Rickey, but haven't read the story a few hundred times. When you spend $75 million to produce and market a movie, you have to make it for all those other people. And leave yourself open to fair criticism from a) people like me, and b) movie critics who, generally speaking, would like every movie to be either The Godfather (if big) or Sex, Lies and Videotape (if small).

Making a great "medium" movie is really hard. Making a great medium movie that's also supposed to convey AN IMPORTANT MESSSAGE is even trickier. 42 is not a great movie. But that's a pretty high bar to clear. I saw a lot of movies last year, and would classify two of them as legitimately great. Three, if you count documentaries. This one isn't going to make my great-in-2013 list ... But it's certainly one of the great baseball movies. Last year I listed my favorite baseball movies, and I can tell you that if were to make a new list next week, 42 would rank somewhere in the top three or four. Where in the top three or four, I don't know yet; it's too soon, and I would actually like to see it again. But I have absolutely no doubt that it's going to straight into the pantheon of baseball movies. Carl Erskine was exactly right when he told me "it's a classic film for the ages."

Again, it's not perfect. The music is too often overbearing, and the Wendell Smith character, while he did actually exist, seems a contrivance (although I can understand why he's been contrived). But there's just so much to like about this movie.

For one thing, this is by far the best baseball that I've ever seen in a movie. While Chadwick Boseman does lack Jackie Robinson's supernatural athleticism -- as nearly everyone else in history has -- he offers a pretty reasonable facsimile considering he's a professional actor. The other actors look good, too. I can't watch most of my favorite baseball movies -- especially Bull Durham, The Natural, and Eight Men Out -- without cringing through much of the actual baseball. Here, though, I buy almost every bit of it.

For another, there's the pure, unadulterated pleasure of seeing the CGI versions of the old ballparks: Cincinnati's Crosley Field, Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, St. Louis's Sportsman's Park, and Brooklyn's Ebbets Field. Especially Ebbets Field. All these places are digitally wrought with incredible attention to detail; and not just the interior, as we also see what the fans would have seen beyond the stadium's confines.

Of course the uniforms are lovely, and it's fun to see them -- to see everything, really, in color. I've read in at least two reviews that everything in the movie is too clean, too shiny. And that's probably true; I would prefer just a touch more grit. But that seems a niggling criticism. A movie can be too pretty, but I'm not sure this one is. Or maybe I just like seeing 1940s-era trains and buses and two-engine airliners, all spiffed up (no maybe about it; I do like seeing those things).

And then there are the players. I've been reading about these guys for a long time, and it's thrilling to see not only Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson on a huge screen, but also Pee Wee Reese and Kirby Higbe and Bobby Bragan and Dixie Walker and Spider Jorgensen and Gene Hermanski and Ralph Branca and Leo Durocher and Clay Hopper and Ben Chapman and Fritz Ostermueller and Enos Slaughter and a bunch of other guys who have mostly just been words on paper for almost as long as I can remember. Oh, and the guy who plays Red Barber deserves some sort of special award. Need I mention that the casting director made great efforts to find actors who actually look like those fellows?

Did the filmmakers take some shortcuts? Of course. There were certain elements of the story that must be told, and the strictures of filmmaking mean you can't always tell them in the precise order or manner in which they actually happened. But there were shortcuts that could have been taken, but weren't. Best Example: Leo Durocher was suspended just before the start of the 1947, and replaced with an old fellow named Burt Shotton.

It would have been easy to ignore that part of the story. Once Shotton takes over and meets Robinson, he essentially disappears; it would have been really easy to just keep Durocher around, as if the suspension never happened. But it's in there, and I was just thrilled to meet Movie Burt Shotton.

Honestly, I have no idea if 42 will play in Peoria. Or Portland, or Pittsburgh. But the people who made 42 might have done what the people who made Moneyball did: Make a movie for guys like me, and for everybody else too. Maybe that doesn't make it great. But it's damn good.

More from Baseball Nation:

Baseball Nation’s 42 coverage (updated daily!)

The Mariners’ next big thing

Expecting the worst ... but hoping for the best!

Does MLB have an African-American problem?

The problem with Tim Lincecum (but not the solution)

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