As I noted in my last post about Jason Collins, now is a particularly prescient moment to see this film with your kids. I’ll get to that more in a bit, but let’s talk about the movie itself.
42, Warner Brothers
Based on a Book?
No. Though there are numerous books at all reading levels about Jackie Robinson. I’ll get to that below.
9 and up. While I think this movie might be a little slow for younger kids, the key thing you’d need to decide is whether extremely racist language is appropriate for your child. I think the power and shock value of hearing how easily racist language and mentalities dripped from Americans in the late 1940s is of tremendous educational value, but you might differ on that.
Good for Grown Ups?
Yes, yes, yes. This film has a very “old-timey” feel to it that anyone who has watched a vintage movie might enjoy, even though sometimes is plays a little cheesy.
Spoilers for Younger Kids
Well, the “N-word” is dropped numerous times in this film. Particularly in the scene when Jackie’s Dodgers play the Phillies under uber-racist skipper Ben Chapman, he is forced to endure a profanity and vulgarity-laced screed replete with sexual innuendo that earns this film its PG-13 rating. Prepping your younger kids for that scene can help make it a learning experience.
Quickie Plot Synopsis
Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey has decided the time has come for the color barrier of America’s pastime to be broken. We follow the process of his choice– USC graduate and army veteran Jackie Robinson–breaking through this great wall, starting as a minor leaguer in Montreal through is first season in Brooklyn.
I saw this movie with my 11-year-old and his buddy, both avid baseball fans. And as a teaching tool about civil rights, prejudice, and the bravery of the path of nonviolence, it is hard to imagine a better film for that audience.
I have to say going in I was a little worried about the choice of newcomer Chadwick Boseman, as from the previews I had not seen the cerebral, almost nerdy Jackie Robinson that I had seen in old films, including The Jackie Robinson Story where Jackie plays himself (it used to be streaming on Netflix, but is no longer…interesting). Instead, it looked like they had turned him instead into a contemporized and stereotypical “angry black man.” I have to say that was one concern that was alleviated by a solid scripting of the character and a convincing performance by Boseman.
I was also delighted to see Harrison Ford actually act in a film for the first time in at least a decade, rather than just say lines and collect a check. While his performance was slightly schmaltzy, again for a younger crowd it worked very well. Of course, the kids were in complete disbelief that, “That was Indiana Jones!”
Actually, schmaltzy is a great word for this entire movie. From the score to the script, the film felt not sappy, but larded through a lens of baseball mythology. From the little boy putting his ear to the track carrying Jackie’s train to the big leagues screaming, “I can HEAR it!” to the slow-motion trot around the bases to the shouts of trumpets and angels, the film itself sometimes felt like a glorified movie-of-the-week. But that glorification actually made it work, mostly because this really is American myth.
This story is so seminal that it can stand up to being put on a pedestal and not crash under its own weight. I actually compare this to John Goodman’s The Babe which in many ways had a similar feel, but despite the realistic depictions of ballparks and Goodman being one of my very favorite actors, it just felt like an over-the-top beatification of the Babe. But here, perhaps because this was such a huge issue, one that transcended baseball, it works.
And speaking of realistic depictions of the ballparks—wow. My parents practically lived at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds growing up. Of course, I’ve seen the parks on film. But the painstaking CGI recreations of these parks, for the first time, made me feel like I could actually go and visit those long gone baseball cathedrals. I found the CGI of the ball’s flight when pitched or hit a little distracting and unrealistic sometimes, but that’s a small nerdy quibble for getting closer than I ever thought I could get to experiencing those fields of dreams. If that’s something of interest to you, I highly recommend you going to see this in the theater. It will lose some of its grandeur even on your big screen TV at home.
Speaking of grandeur, I think what was missing for me in this film was a lack of grandeur, actually. We skipped from one seminal moment to another, and I almost felt like I was watching a historical highlight reel rather than a cohesive story. In order to be a great film, I felt like the story needed a little more connective tissue. One of the great baseball films of all time that has a similar mythological feel, The Natural, is replete with small moments, from talking about how good the food is at a restaurant to batting practice conversation. It brought a personal feel to a grand film that I really didn’t find much in 42. Even the personal moments were vital, as if every second of the man’s life was filled with huge importance. That separation from a regular Joe like me was missing, and, I think, kept 42 from truly competing with movies like The Natural, Field of Dreams (my favorite movie of all time), Eight Men Out, and Bull Durham and even Major League (just the first one) as iconic baseball films.
That said, it does more than enough to be both entertaining and thought-provoking. Having Gus quote me Branch Rickey’s line “I’m looking for a man with the guts not to fight back!” made it worth the price of admission right there.
Overall Score: 4 out of 5 stars
See It Then Read It
I will once again recommend that, whether before or after you see 42, you and your kids read the excellent piece Jason Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated as he joins Robinson as a civil rights pioneer through sports. For more on Jackie Robinson for kids, I’m a big fan of the “Who Was?” series and there is a very good one on Jackie Robinson that we own. And, to continue the story, one of the all-time classic baseball books Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer is recommended for absolutely anyone.
But, however, you do it, please bring Jackie Robinson into your children’s life. I truly believe his story is a gateway to a cornucopia of fantastic life lessons.
The baseball is just a fringe benefit.