Thursday, April 25, 2013

Trust Your Subject Matter

It's a double-edged sword.  If you make a baseball biography movie, it's a sure thing that I will go and see it.  Point in your favor, filmmakers.  But, along with my almost certain attendance, you will also get the nitpicking that only a baseball fan like me can provide.  Point against, filmmakers.  I'm a wash.  Or, as they say in baseball, I'm at .500.

I waited anxiously for "42."  Given the dearth of seeable movies at the multiplex, I was dying for it to arrive.  And, truth be told, there is an awful lot to like about the Jackie Robinson biopic.  I'll likely see it again soon.

That's the review from "Entertainment" Len.

And, truth be told, there is an awful lot I didn't like about "42."  That's the review from "Baseball" Len.  And, if you read on, please be aware that there are spoilers included in the body of this entry.

The producers tried to have it two ways.  They wanted to make a film that truly paid homage to Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson and his struggles to break the color line of America's pastime in 1947.  But they also wanted to give you a movie that's like any other sports movie ever made.  With those great orchestra crescendos perfectly timed for the winning run or goal that you just know will be filmed in slow motion.  In effect, they wanted to remake "The Natural."

Translation: using both butter and margarine on the same slice of bread doesn't work.

There is enough story in Jackie Robinson's ascent to the big leagues to hold the attention of the audience.  Dodger executive Branch Rickey's fierce determination to bring a Black baseball player to the majors.  After all, as he says, there are Black fans and White fans who both have money that is Green. 

When it is decided that Jackie is the one who will break through, we follow his riveting minor league career.  Playing in one bigoted Southern town after another.  Enduring Jim Crow laws and not even being able to shower with the rest of his teammates.  I've read two biographies on Robinson.  All of the above facts are spot-on and well portrayed in the movie.

There was plenty of fuel in the tank for writer/director Brian Helgeland to cruise control right over the finish line of cinematic victory.  But he apparently doesn't trust the power of his own subject matter.  As a result, he employs some cheap film theatrics to help the cause.

And, in my view, only hinder it.

Take, for instance, the very first shot.  We see a Black sportswriter in 1947 typing into his Smith Corona.  We will later learn that this is a real person and he will be the first Black sportwriter to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  But, uh oh, he starts to narrate the tale about Jackie as he types it.  This is the cheesiest film device known to man.

And, as he types and narrates, he describes Jackie as an "African-American."  I raise my hand for the first inconsistency to be found.  In 1947, was this phrase even used?  In my own existence, I don't recall this term was prominently used until the 80s.  Is this 2013 sensibility juxtaposed inaccurately onto the late 1940s?  Already annoyed by the hokey plot device, my eyebrows are raised for the first time.

Then there's the major set piece about halfway through the film.  Jackie is now a Brooklyn Dodger.  It's late April 1947 and his presence in the sport is still a bit unwelcome.  They're playing the Philadelphia Phillies at home and their manager Ben Chapman wants nothing to do with him on the field.   So, as Jackie comes to bat, the manager taunts him over and over with the "N" word.  The scene is raw and, according to history, quite real.  The depiction is probably accurate.

Yet, after Jackie makes out, he heads to the runway of the dugout and explodes.  Breaking bats and gnashing his teeth.  I'm guessing that this really happened a few times over his career as well.  But, Helgeland can't leave well enough alone.  In steps Branch Rickey, who does his best impression of Ward Cleaver.  It's a father-son moment that reminds me of about seventy different episodes of "My Three Sons."   Suddenly, it's Fred MacMurray and Barry Livingston.  After ten minutes of gritty reality, we are subjected to a moment that probably did not happen.  And rings totally false.  The power of the whole set piece is completely diminished.

Yes, the scene is entertainment.  But, since we're told this is "based on a true story," the baseball side of yours truly is now permanently skeptical at what is being shown on the screen.

By the ending of the film, I am now totally questioning all that I see.  And, as I would subsequently learn when I go home and do a little research, I should be.

We see it's the end of the season.  September 17, 1947.  The Dodgers have to win one game to qualify for the World Series.  They're playing the Pittsburgh Pirates on the road at Forbes Field.  Can you amp up this much drama in one movie? 

Oh, wait, there's more.  The Pirate pitcher is Fritz Ostermueller and I'm thinking he could have been my German grandfather's favorite baseball player.  We know that Ostermueller beaned Jackie earlier in the film.  Jackie knows this and craves payback.  We amp up the tension even more.  This is the climactic big game.  The finale of every sports movie you have ever seen. 

The score is shown to be 0-0 in the ninth inning.  Jackie comes to the plate and, boom, sends the ball skyrocketing over the fence.   His homerun trot around the bases is slowed to a crawl.  All of a sudden, it's Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in "The Natural."  The Mets' Ed Kranepool could have gotten around the bases quicker.  Meanwhile, the voice over narration tells us that this homer propelled the Dodgers into the 1947 World Series (no mention, however, that they lost it in seven games to the Yankees).

The only problem is....the Dodgers weren't the home team.  I turned to the friend I was with and said "the Pirates still have one more at-bat coming."  It's that kind of clumsiness that almost sank the whole movie for me.

So, I go home to find the real story.  I have a trusted friend in a website called ""  It contains the statistical history of the entire storm.  And every box score going back to the invention of the game.  I wanted to see just how realistic this one game is.

Yes, on September 17, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates on the road at Forbes Field.  And, oh, yes, my grandfather's favorite Dutchman was on the mound.  And, yep, Jackie Robinson did hit a home run off him.

In the fourth inning.  Final score.  Brooklyn 4, Pittsburgh 2.

And, wait, it wasn't the last game of the year for all the marbles.  The Dodgers still had another eight games to play.

One more quibble?  Retro Sheet lists the game as a contest played at night.  On the screen, it all happens in blazing daylight.

So, as a movie moment, it is spectacular.  But, as a definitive history, it comes off as cheap and phony.  Helgeland didn't need to go to such obvious limits to captivate his audience.  We were already halfway there.  If we're going to screw with historical facts that much, I hope the director doesn't take a whack at a tale about 9/11.  He might have the second tower stay up for a whole 24 hours just so his star-crossed couple could make it out alive.

The sad thing is that, while Helgeland failed on the most basic of dramatic levels, the movie astounded me with its attention to the smallest of details.  Never before have I appreciated CGI effects as much as I did with "42."   I was taken by the hand back to games played in ballparks long since demolished.  Ebbets Field.  Crosley Field in Cincinnati.  The aforementioned Forbes Field.  Only the Polo Grounds in Manhattan looked superficial and reminded me of one of the backdrops in the computer version of Strat-O-Matic Baseball.  Otherwise, it was all visually amazing. 

The acting was also dynamic.  Admittedly, the role of Jackie Robinson doesn't require much more to do than look athletic and grind your teeth to the point of TMJ.  But, newcomer Chadwick Boseman was up to the task and was a better Jackie Robinson than even Robinson himself when the latter starred in his own biopic from the early 1950s. 

Harrison Ford was terrific as Branch Rickey and it appears that he might be able to put that whip away for good.  Ford has a prosperous future playing crochety old men.  Christopher Meloni essayed manager Leo Durocher with all the ferocity I have read about.  And, yes, there's another flub here.  The real Durocher was suspended from baseball not for having an affair with a Hollywood starlet, but for gambling.  Another unnecessary rewrite of the facts.

Meanwhile, an unrecognizable Max Gail plays Dodger manager Burt Shotton to a tee and is dressed perfectly.  Shotton is well known for wanting to manage games in a suit and tie.  And, as legendary Dodger radio announcer Red Barber, John McGinley gives us an almost flawless impersonation of the broadcaster.  If you closed your eyes, you'd think you were listen to vintage audio clips.

I know I sound a bit conflicted about "42."  Perhaps 99% of the audience will love it to death and rightfully so.  It's a terrific story and a great time at the multiplex.  But then there's some of us baseball nuts who will take issue with the inconsistencies.  And know fully well that, had director Brian Helgeland simply stuck to the documented story and not caved to Hollywood conventions, "42" would have been for sports movies what Jackie Robinson was for baseball.

A true trailblazer.

Dinner last night:  Pork chop for my first visit ever to Sardi's.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Be grateful that Spike Lee didn't get to make his Jackie Robinson movie.

Ha ha