For the past two weeks, we (sports media and sports fans) have spent countless hours on-air, online and in our local watering holes debating what is deemed to be “proper” conduct for coaches in the wake of the Rutgers practice footage. Was Rutgers right to fire him? Should the outcry from the media, the Twitterverse and public opinion have been able to override the earlier decision to suspend Mike Rice? We ponder Augusta and its history as Tiger Woods sought to continue his recent run-up at “The Masters.”
Are words just words?
On our Sunday morning FOX Sports Radio program (9am-12pm ET) last weekend, we spoke to several callers who expressed their disdain for such a cultural shift as related to the Rice situation. The pejorative terms “soft” and “weak” were used to describe the Rutgers players. One gentleman brought up the concept of military boot camp and questioned the players’ ability to survive it.
That’s one of the central themes of the new film “42,” the baseball story of Jackie Robinson’s arrival to Brooklyn. Now, I utilize the term “baseball story” because most of the film is confined to the baseball diamond. The film provides few glimpses into Robinson’s life away from the park and the clubhouse. Rather, it focuses on Robinson’s struggles during his rookie season strictly in the context of the game.
Dodgers owner, Branch Rickey, as played by a gruff, grizzled Harrison Ford, offers support and memorable one-liners while counseling Robinson and admonishing other owners, the league commissioner, players and coaches for their attitude and language.
The slow, methodical delivery of his words drives home their urgency and importance. The role is a decidedly different turn for the longtime box office hero.
I mention the one-liners and quasi-sermons (complete with Biblical references) offered by Ford’s Rickey. It’s part of the tapestry of language that made the movie for me. Remember, there was no television to capture the images. While moviegoers have the benefit of seeing the plays – Robinson dancing on the bases while threatening to steal a base or the physical confrontations between Robinson and opponents, including a bench-clearing brawl – the scene was set on radio by the rhythm, the imagination, the poetic verse of the baseball announcer.
John C. McGinley’s (Scrubs/Platoon/Office Space) portrayal of Red Barber provides the soundtrack to the baseball scenes. The analogies and descriptive terms bring you back to an earlier time, a celebration of the language employed by Barber and his contemporaries such as Mel Allen, Harry Caray and Ernie Harwell.
• McGinley is no stranger to sports films. Remember, he played a much different type of commentator in Any Given Sunday as a loud, abrasive talk show host.
Andre Holland as Wendell Smith (1600 Penn), an African-American journalist assigned to shadow Robinson, provides another important voice in the film. He serves as driver and confidante for Robinson and chronicles Robinson’s performance for The Pittsburgh Courier.
Of course, the power of language cuts both ways. The Barber and Smith characters make language sing and elevate discourse. By way of contrast, Alan Tudyk (“Steve The Pirate” from Dodgeball, Noah Werner from Suburgatory) takes a dramatic turn as Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. He portrays the embodiment of baseball lifers’ resentment of Robinson’s arrival. In one memorable and jarring scene, Tudyk’s Chapman spews a litany of racial epithets at Robinson (Chadwick Boseman).
This particular scene has stayed in my consciousness the past several days. I could see other patrons shifting in their seats uncomfortably and heard the sniffles of tears being cleared.
Again, the power of language was at work.
I believe that the film accomplishes what it set out to do. It puts this piece of history into a two-hour accounting of Robinson’s introduction to Major League Baseball. Boseman does a tremendous job as Robinson. His performance evokes an emotional response, and his cadence and delivery punctuate the weight of the conflict. So, as a film in and of itself, I left satisfied.
I just wish the film had extended beyond the team and the confines of the ballpark structure more completely. How did speak of his teammates and opponents among his friends and family? How was he off the field and away from baseball with the eyes of the world upon him?
There is an emotional exchange between he and wife Rachel (portrayed by Nicole Beharie), but it is the only glimpse into the emotional and physical impact on Robinson. And what about Mrs. Robinson’s life during that year?
The film is doing very well at the box office. At last report, it was heading toward a $25-million opening weekend, far exceeding expectations. And I’m happy to hear that. It’s a story that needed to be told, a story that needed to be introduced to this generation, a generation that digests information in quick sound and video hits, but that still flocks to the cinema. Perhaps it will inspire those introduced to Jackie Robinson to dig deeper and explore Robinson’s life outside of the summer of 1947.
Let me know what you think after you take it in.