The latest from writer-director Brian Helgeland (The Order) has all the makings of an inspirational sports biopic. Unfortunately, he made a bio about the wrong sports legend.
The movie explores the relationship between two giants of baseball: Jackie Robinson, who made history by becoming the first African American to play alongside whites since the 1880s when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947; and Branch Rickey, the man who made it happen.
Despite being familiar ground and decades overdue, Robinson’s story is an important one. In more imaginative hands, it might’ve even been a classic one. Actor Chadwick Boseman is game as the model of self-control who gives Rickey his word he won’t take the bait when racists try to get under his skin.
Helgeland’s handling of the material is simply too by the book, giving us the milestone in place of the man. Between the predictable bases his script covers (teammates are gradually won over by Robinson’s talent and character) and Mark Isham’s score supplying emotional cues as subtly as a ballpark organ, nobody needs a scoreboard to know how this one will turn out. Robinson shocked the world, but 42, while uplifting, offers little in the way of surprise.
Meanwhile, here’s Harrison Ford, looking like he’s come to a Halloween party in a Galway Kinnell costume. He plays Rickey, the Dodgers’ business manager and a fellow who, my research reveals, was full of surprises. I’m not sure even Helgeland could’ve failed to score with a movie about him. Consider this:
Rickey started his career as a catcher for the St. Louis Browns in 1905. He did not make Rookie of the Year, as Robinson did. In fact, he was so terrible that he once allowed a team to steal 13 bases — a record that stands to this day! Sensing his destiny wasn’t on the field, he reinvented himself as a Major League Baseball executive. Breaking the color barrier by signing Robinson was just one of many marks this visionary made on the national pastime.
How is it not common knowledge that Rickey, by the time health problems benched him in 1955, had been responsible for game changers such as paving the way for Latinos in the majors by drafting future superstar Roberto Clemente and singlehandedly inventing the modern minor league farm system? He conceived the role of general manager as we know it today; developed the first full-time spring training facility in Florida and introduced tools such as batting cages, pitching machines and even the batting helmet.
Hell, that’s not a movie, it’s a miniseries, and I haven’t even gotten to the most mind-blowing part. Remember Moneyball, the Oscar-nominated story of a groundbreaking GM who turned baseball on its ear by making decisions based on statistical data instead of old-fashioned measures of skill? Half a century before Billy Beane broke with tradition in Oakland and the Red Sox hired Bill James, Rickey had already been there and done that.
He not only pioneered the use of statistical analysis; he even hired statistician Allan Roth as a full-time analyst for the Dodgers in 1947. There’s a significant difference between the experiments of Beane and Rickey, however: Rickey’s resulted in winning the pennant. Twice.
Jackie Robinson was an American hero, an athlete and activist of the highest order, and a man capable of maintaining an almost inconceivable level of dignity. He deserves a movie that strives to be at least half as great as he was, a movie better than a cookie-cutter Hollywood biopic like this one. If 42 tells us anything most of us don’t already know, it’s that Rickey, the guy who threw the game that historic curveball, just might deserve one, too.