April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day in baseball. This is because Jackie made his major league debut that day in 1947. In honor of that event, I decided I’d go ahead and watch a more recent for this week’s review. I was not disappointed.
You don’t need me to tell you the story of Jackie Robinson. That’s especially true if you’ve seen this movie because, based on some research I did, it’s extremely accurate to history. If it was a memorable line or moment from the movie, it almost certainly happened in real life. Eddie Stanky did yell down Ben Chapman after Chapman hurled endless racial slurs at Jackie. Peewee Reese did put his arm around Robinson at an away game in Cincinnati to show his friends and family who he was. Branch Rickey did tell that story about Charles Thomas and historians largely agree that his choice to integrate baseball was made both because of business and ethical reasons. Heck, even Ed Charles did show up to a Montreal Royals exhibition game and pray for Jackie’s success. Jackie Robinson was chased out of Sanford and endured many other slights, besides.
In fact, there is appears to have been only one dramatic scene in the movie for which there was no real-life corollary - when Jackie heads down the tunnel to the clubhouse following the second of Chapman’s tirades in the movie. However, that scene plays an important part in helping the audience understand difficult it must have been for Jackie to endure that kind of treatment day after day after day. It also helps illuminate just how much pressure he was under; Jackie Robinson died at the age of 53 from a combination of diabetes and heart problems. Heart problems that could not have been helped by the stress he underwent as a pioneer and hero for other black baseball players.
The framing and sound design of the scene are impressive, too. Jackie being backlit like that removes the humanity from the character as he goes berserk and highlights how little he feels like himself and how he’s being subsumed into something else. The sounds of the park vanishing after just a few steps into the tunnel and then returning slowly as he walks back toward the field after his outburst also displays how far away he is from the everyday reality of the game being played just a short ways away while he’s feeling such vast amounts of emotional turmoil.
But the scene wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if the talent hadn’t been there. Everyone knows who Chadwick Boseman is, now, after this movie and since his star turn as Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for my money, this performance is far more impressive. And at the time he was relatively unknown, at least to the public. He’d primarily been a small-part guest actor on a variety of TV shows before hitting it big with 42. The performance he turns in is why the movie acted as a launching point for his career instead of a peak. The amount of emoting he’s able to do with his face and body language even when he isn’t speaking is frankly astonishing. And he completely sells the tunnel scene with his screams feeling as if the raw anguish has been torn out of him with every swing of the bat.
The movie was well-cast, in general. Most of the actors present look a great deal like the people they represent even if most of them don’t have a lot to do. Then there is Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman delivering all the hatred he could muster as the real-life villain. Harrison Ford, however, may have given the performance of his career. I’ve seen a lot of Harrison Ford in my life and, like many action stars, most of his performances are the same character in a variety of situations. This performance, however, was so very different from the person he usually plays on screen that if I wasn’t so very familiar with him I am not sure I would have recognized him. A great deal of credit should go to the costume and makeup departments, as well.
If I had one complaint about the movie it would be about the music. For the most part, it’s fine; it does its job and it’s not really noticeable. But when you do notice it, it’s a bit over the top. This is especially highlighted in Jackie Robinson’s home run against the Pirates at the end of the movie. Yes, it helped propel the Dodgers to the pennant. But that was never what this movie was really about and it feels weird to act like that is his final victory. It was, perhaps, also a difficulty in writing the film. It’s got to end on a grand triumphant note but the true victories of the film are all too small to fit the moment on their own. Still, the music wasn’t doing it any favors.
If I had a second complaint it would be with how long Jackie stands and admires his home runs and how slowly he trots the bases after them. I can’t be 100% sure this isn’t historically accurate but in the current state of baseball, either of those would get him beaned. As a black man in 1947 doing it, I can’t imagine it would have resulted in a different outcome. It also would have been exactly the kind of challenge he and Rickey wanted to avoid offering to opposing players.
But those are both relatively minor quibbles with an otherwise excellent film. It’s rare to see historical source material treated with this much respect toward being authentic. It’s almost as rare to see actors putting on such astonishing displays of dramatic talent in a sports movie. But this movie definitely delivered on both and is well worth your time.