Release Date: April 12th, 2013 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Brian Helgeland Actors: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Lucas Black, Andre Holland, Alan Tudyk, John C. McGinley
contains all the elements necessary for an inspirational sports drama to succeed. Unfortunately, it’s as if the film is trying to meet a quota, doling out emotional moments, enough adversity for any underdog, and a touch of manipulation. Following formulas for these types of films has proven to be continually profitable. But does a work based on the already powerful notion of the consequential integration of black players into the American pastime of baseball really need a heavy hand for delivery? Isn’t it enough to portray an exceptional man standing up to the overwhelming pressures of racism to stimulate change amongst longstanding tradition?
Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) of the Brooklyn National League Baseball Club decides (seemingly out of the blue) that he wants to hire the first black player for his team to play in the 1947 season. He selects Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a man he feels can withstand the brutal racism he’ll inevitably combat from fans, managers, opponents, press, and even his own teammates. But his greatest achievement will be to ignore the abuse and show the world that he belongs on the field with his exceptional skill for the game. Having started in the Negro leagues, Robinson manages to play briefly for the minor league teams of the Kansas City Monarchs and then the Montreal Royals before signing onto the major league Brooklyn Dodgers. He’s accompanied by his faithful wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) as well as a helpful reporter, Wendell Smith (Andre Holland, who also narrates) of the Pittsburgh Courier, for guidance through the system of intolerance – which shows little mercy to the shattering of 60 years of racial segregation in baseball. At the start of the 1947 season, the roster would show 399 white members and 1 black.
Director Brian Helgeland, who writes purposefully but with circumspect intention, is aided by plenty of rousing speeches and frequent swells of music. Characters don’t have conversations as much as they perform soapbox sermons – although a smartly fine line is walked to avoid unbearable preachiness. Helgeland has the sensibility to tone down the moralizing and let the natural sympathy for the targets of ignorance fuel disturbance and reaction. There’s also plenty of humor to even out the darker scenes, with characters like John C. McGinley as a hilariously dry announcer (who delivers not a single sincere line), and Ford who lands some of the funniest retorts while grumbling through every sentence he speaks. Christopher Meloni plays coach Leo Durocher, who shouts his lines to compensate for authentic boiling, while Max Gail takes the reigns of Burt Shotton, an unusually calm and quiet replacement manager. The film smartly focuses more on besting barriers and curbing attitudes than the game of baseball itself, although there are a few brief moments of fun to be had for those primarily interested in the sport. It’s a biopic with a mission, which occasionally keeps the film moving slowly, attempting to encompass history over excitement.
The historical events appear to be primarily in place, although several of the minor details are questionable. Artistic license may have influenced a few scenes for the sake of awe – namely when Robinson successfully steals third base despite being caught in a pickle, a pitcher becoming so muddled that he drops the ball out of his hand prior to a pitch, resulting in a balk that allows the scoring of a run, and Robinson swinging on a 3-0 count against Pirates pitcher Fritz Ostermueller – for a home run. All of these are quite unlikely, but their inclusion definitely ups the impressiveness and achievements of the courageous dark horse.
– Mike Massie