2013. 128 min. PG-13 - Mild violence, sexual/racial innuendo, no sex, extensive use of "nigger", which, regardless of modern strictures seems appropriate to the difficulty of the hero's situation.IMDB says... The life story of Jackie Robinson and his history-making signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers under the guidance of team executive Branch Rickey.
The 73rd Virgin says... Brian Helgeland made the best baseball movie in quite a while with Money Ball. This isn’t quite that good, but it’s still a rousing, positive, and old-fashioned baseball drama with a nice feel for what it must have been like to play the sport professionally in the 40s and 50s.
As far as Jackie Robinson is concerned, it quickly establishes him as somewhat uniquely qualified for his historic role. By having Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey essentially read off Robinson’s qualifications, it hits on what was unique about the man; touching on his impoverished background, his status as a military officer, his attendance at college and success there, his trumped up court-martial, later dismissed, and as Rickey says “Robinson’s a Methodist; I’m a Methodist; God is a Methodist”. In fact, Rickey’s Christian motivations are placed in a positive light several times.
At first I was put off by Ford’s mannerisms and speech patterns, but it’s a pretty good evocation of Rickey’s charismatic and singular style, and I grew used to it. After Cowboys and Aliens, I didn’t think Ford had it in him to be entertaining ever again but he’s very good throughout.
Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) are presented with almost no drama. They are obviously smart and aimed at establishing themselves in the postwar black middle class. The apparent solidity of their relationship spares the audience many tiresome minutes of the semi-obligatory courting scenes that appear in most biographies. But it leaves Rachel with not much to do except be supportive and brave, although she was a formidable and accomplished person on her own.
There are only four major black roles. Robinson, his wife, journalist Wendell Smith, and a kindly community leader who puts Robinson up in his house while he’s playing in Florida.
Perversely, this opens up the field for a string of skilled white actors to jolly-up and carry much of the narrative forward. Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, the prolific voice actor and beloved Firefly/Serenity veteran Alan Tudyk as the viciously racist Pittsburgh manager Ben Chapman, and a host of others.
And whoever thought of having John McGinley as Dodger’s radio announcer Red Barber deserves a special nod. This scene comes after an old-school full-length version of the national anthem, with Rickey grumbling along off-key, further adding to what my wife simply described as the “old fashioned” feel of the movie.
If you’re old enough, you may recognize Max Gail of 1970s “Barney Miller” fame as aged replacement manager Burt Shotton. I don’t focus on the scene because of Gail but because of the expert way the character endorses Robinson with humor and gentlemanliness.
I guess the overall dramatic affect might be what Helgeland intended. That is, Robinson is the (relative) calm at the center of the storm. He gets to display his temper and the crushing pressure he is under here and there, but in a fine late scene he is beaned by a pitcher and both benches empty onto an on-field brawl, but all the fighting goes on around him as he sits bewildered in the middle of it. I don’t know if it’s historically accurate but it shows the racist attitudes surrounding him as well as the extent to which some of his teammates have adjusted to his presence and are determined to defend him.
It is probably not that expensive nor technically challenging to digitally place modern players in ancient baseball parks, but I still appreciate the effort. One can see what it must have been like to play or sit in The Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, etc.
There are a couple of scenes that are so ham-fisted in their racial lessons for the young audience that one can almost imagine a study guide for the film. And it spends probably too much time on Robinson’s positive effect on one young black boy who will grow up to be a baseball player of modest importance.
A dramatically perfect movie might have found time for his post baseball life rather than white text on black screen focusing on all the great things baseball has done for racial equality since he left. Granted, his stint as an executive at Coca-Cola would not have made interesting viewing, and his tragic early death from diabetes complications would’ve been a downer. His social conservativism and his support of the Vietnam War, and his rather, shall we say, “non-urban” speaking style would’ve been problematic as well, I suppose. Here is video of him addressing a civil rights rally in Birmingham, Alabama.
Like other racial ground breakers of his time, such as Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole, he was looked upon with some suspicion by at least some in the more vocal 60s civil rights movement, but that’s just the way of things and social movements.
But these are minor quibbles. Oh hell, I guess it’s better the movie stops when it does. Fine acting and special effects all around, a jaunty and entertaining soundtrack from the era, and obviously made by people who cared.