Watching the movie “42” brings to mind the ending to John Ford’s fine 1962 western, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” A newspaperman (and the viewer) has learned from James Stewart the truth about who really gunned down the evil Valance years before. But rather than run with the story, the newsman rips it up and flings it into the stove. His reason? “When the legend becomes fact,” he says, “print the legend.”
While “Valance” is pure fiction, it raises the hard question that faces any maker of a biopic: Do I print the legend or print the fact?
The makers of “42,” about Jackie Robinson’s breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, tipped their hand well before the movie’s scheduled release this Friday. A movie billboard in Midtown Manhattan reads, “The true story of an American legend.”
There’s nothing wrong in playing the legend card. But legends, by their very nature, are two-dimensional, and Robinson was a complicated, multifaceted man.
What unfolds in “42,” written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who won a screenwriting Oscar for “L.A. Confidential” (1997), is a mostly Rockwellian portrait that feels like an old-fashioned Hollywood movie: “Mr. Robinson Goes to the Major Leagues.”
Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey, the white baseball executive who brought Robinson to the majors, is gruff and avuncular. Chadwick Boseman’s Jackie Robinson is fierce and noble as he simmers and silently faces down the racists and the skeptics.
The movie closes on a resounding upbeat. Led by their brave black rookie, who played in 151 games and batted a sturdy .297 to start his Hall of Fame career, the Dodgers win the 1947 National League pennant by five games over the second-place St. Louis Cardinals and earn the right to face the Yankees, winners of the American League pennant, in the World Series.
In the film we don’t get to see the Dodgers play the Yankees in that Series. But listen to Robinson, in his 1972 autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” as he writes about Game 1 at Yankee Stadium:
“Today as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama, and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
Those are not the words of a Hollywood hero, but of a complex and ambivalent man.
Robinson’s words bring us up short because, culturally, we want his legend, a cross-pollination of proud American mythology and exceptionalism, to be true because it makes us feel good about ourselves, about baseball, about our perceived progress on race relations.
As with many movies about sports, which tend toward the legend model, “42” runs the risk of making more out of ballplayers and baseball executives than what’s there. At heart, Robinson was a four-sport star at UCLA (where he was a very good football running back) who wanted to play ball and earn a living. Rickey was a career baseball man who wanted to win games and make money. They needed each other.
Yes, Robinson was a symbol, a lightning rod for both black and white America. But it’s important to remember he was all athlete, a feral ballplayer, a professional who played his chosen game hard.
As he wrote in his book, “I believed in fierce competition and swift retaliation for mistreatment.”
Because Robinson’s breakthrough came in the United States of America, it’s also a tale complicated by its sense of keen economic opportunity: you know, money. And “42” doesn’t shy from that fact. Ford’s Rickey says, “Dollar’s aren’t black and white,” and the Dodger manager Leo Durocher, played by Christopher Meloni, states, “We’re playing for money here, Mr. Rickey.”
But Robinson was blunter in his book. “Money is America’s God,” he wrote, “and business people can dig black power if it coincides with green power.” And on his teammates: “They hadn’t changed because they liked me any better; they had changed because I could help fill their wallets.”
George Vecsey, the writer and columnist for The New York Times, gets at Robinson’s ability to help and to raise up others in his 2006 history, “Baseball,” when he writes, “Every black politician, every black rap singer, every black athlete of today, every black citizen vaguely getting by, comes through Jackie Robinson, but without the incredible stress that wore Robinson down before his time.”
Robinson died in 1972, just 53 years old.
In a sense, as comic-book and action-movie fans await the reboot of the Superman franchise on June 14 with the release of “Man of Steel,” “42” is the season’s first major superhero movie. (Coincidentally, Meloni is in each film.)
Think about it. Robinson’s No. 42, so revered that Major League Baseball has retired it for all teams, is about as distinctive as Superman’s “S.” Both Robinson and Superman were abandoned by their fathers, then found adoptive dads in Rickey and Pa Kent. Robinson has larger-than-life villains to deal with, like the Phillies’ racist manager, Ben Chapman. And Robinson, to survive and thrive, had to build his own kind of Fortress of Solitude.
But despite their common thread the most intriguing thing is what sets these two movies apart: It appears that “Man of Steel” wants to try to humanize the comic-book legend, while “42” makes a legend of the very human Jack Roosevelt Robinson.