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42 (10/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 128 minutes.

OK for children.

When I was growing up, Jackie Robinson was the Dodger I disliked the most. It had nothing to do with his race. I was a Yankee fan and Jackie was a hated Brooklyn Dodger. Actually, it was a compliment to him that I didn’t like him because he epitomized his competitiveness with the Dodgers and I did not want them to beat the Yankees.

During Robinson's ten-year tenure with the Dodgers, they faced the Yankees in the World Series six times, 1947, 49, 52, 53, 55, and 56 (the Bums lost the 1950 pennant to the Philadelphia Phillies in the 10th inning of the last game of the season and lost the 1951 pennant to the New York Giants in the last inning of the third playoff game on Bobby Thomson's historic homerun; with a little luck they would have faced the Yankees in five consecutive World Series). This was baseball’s golden era and Robinson was the best player on the Dodgers, so he was the one Yankee fans hated the most.

Later, when I grew up, I came to not only admire Jackie, but to revere him. I think he was the greatest American of the 20th century, and not just because he was a great baseball player. What he went through in breaking the color line in baseball was heroic, even saintly and had ramifications far beyond the baseball world and the world of sport.

This film brilliantly captures what Robinson faced in 1946 and 1947. It shows the blatant racism of the players and the Establishment, the horrible slurs that were thrown at him, how alone he was, the only black baseball player in all of professional baseball. It shows how many of his Dodger teammates were against him, and those that were for him like Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) and PeeWee Reese (Lucas Black), and his courage in refusing to fight back when attacked, and attacked viciously. The attacks are epitomized by the epithets thrown at him by Philadelphia Phillies' manager, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk, in a good performance). What goes on in this movie isn't something out of a writer's imagination. These things actually happened and what Chapman yelled at him was probably a lot worse than what's shown on the screen.

I’m probably one of the few film critics who actually saw Jackie Robinson play baseball. I’m sure I’m the only film critic who knows as much about Jackie Robinson as I do. In fact, I used the interview shown in the film between Jackie and Branch Rickey as a classic example of how to use silence in an interview in my award-winning groundbreaking 1978 book Sweaty Palms: the Neglected Art of Being Interviewed (click here to read what really happened in the interview).

I can’t say enough good things about this moving film. Baseball has not been well treated by Hollywood, but Hollywood gets it right here. Brilliantly written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who received the approval of Rachel Robinson (exceptionally well played by Nicole Beharie), Jackie's widow, the baseball scenes are right on. The CGI re-creations of the classic baseball fields, Ebbets Field, The Polo Grounds, and Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, are exceptionally accurate.

But better than that is the acting. Chadwick Boseman looks like Jackie, and, while not as bulky as Jackie (who starred in football, basketball, and track in addition to baseball at UCLA), radiates athleticism. Harrison Ford gives an award quality performance as Branch Rickey, the crusty general manager who made the earthshaking decision to break the color line and picked the right man to do it. Helgeland's script strikes the right chords in showing Robinson's heroism but doing it by showing that he was at heart just a man who was trying to earn a living who was put in a historical situation and rose to the occasion better than anyone could have hoped.

What makes what Robinson did even more remarkable is that despite all the pressure he was under unrelated to baseball, he still performed well enough on the field to be named Rookie of the Year in 1947 and the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1949!

There are a few factual problems, but nothing earthshaking. One thing that bothered me was that when sportscaster Red Barber (John C. McGinley in the poorest performance in the movie) is discussing the Dodgers' prospects for 1947, he states that the Dodgers "finished two games behind in 1946 and hope to do better." This is highly misleading. In fact, the Dodgers and Cardinals tied for the pennant in 1946 and played a best two out of three game playoff. The Cardinals won the first two games so, technically, Barber was right, but the implication was that the Dodgers barely missed winning the pennant by two games when in fact they actually tied for the pennant. Maybe this was a little too complicated for Helgeland to get in the movie, but he didn’t have to have Red Barber make a statement that he clearly never made. If Barber ever referred to 1946 at the beginning of 1947 he would undoubtedly have said that the Dodgers tied for the pennant and lost in a playoff.

As a last tag and nothing to do with the movie, however, I do want to comment on the Dodgers. While the team basks in the glory of how it gave Robinson the chance to break the color line, in 1950 Branch Rickey was forced out of management by a shrewd lawyer, Walter O’Malley (although Rickey did manage to get over a million dollars for his interest). Six years later the Dodgers ignored the contributions Jackie made not only to baseball but to American society as a whole by trading Jackie to the Dodgers’ hated crosstown rivals, the New York Giants for a journeyman pitcher, Dick Littlefield. The trade, which was shockingly disrespectful of Robinson and what he went through, was engineered by O’Malley over the objections of his General Manager, Buzzie Bavasi. Robinson retired a month later and the trade was voided. Jackie later described O’Malley as “viciously antagonistic.”

Jackie Robinson was a gentleman. In 1950 UCLA’s basketball team played in Madison Square Garden against CCNY, who became the only team to win both the NCAA and the NIT tournaments in the same year. Even so, UCLA won. Jerry Norman, who was the starting guard for UCLA, told me that as they were walking off the court after the game, a New York Times photographer asked Jerry and three other players to pose for a picture with a black man who was dressed in a suit and tie. It was Jackie Robinson. Jackie had traveled all the way from Brooklyn to see his old team play and he dressed up for it and he did it without contacting anyone at UCLA to tell them he would be there. For me, that speaks volumes about his character and the high quality person he was.

I could go on and on about this movie and about Jackie Robinson, but that’s for another day. Suffice it to say that this movie should get an Oscar nomination and so should Boseman, Ford, and Helgeland, at least. Bravo to Warner Bros. for making such a fine movie, one that will interest fans and non-fans alike, about an American hero.

April 4, 2013