Thursday Lisa and I went to see “42,” which is (as I told Lisa afterwards) probably the worst movie I’ve ever really enjoyed. What this means, I guess, is that the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier is so powerful on its own that you almost can’t make it uninteresting. But the story’s presentation is clunky at times, and several of the facts and historical details included are just flat-out wrong–which is pretty annoying, especially since getting them right wouldn’t have hurt the story a bit (or, as I will argue, would have helped it considerably).
Things like the beaning of Jackie Robinson–which did not happen (Robinson was hit, but not beaned in 1947)–and historical oddities like the Dodgers wearing home whites when Robinson later homers off the same pitcher later in the season, even though the game was played in Pittsburgh and they should have been wearing gray. Yeah, the last is petty, I know, but it’s hard to believe the movie makers can get these things wrong. Or things like how, in doing ten minutes of research, you can find out other such simple things–like the fact that the pitcher in question (Fritz Ostermueller) was left-handed, but was portrayed in the film as throwing right-handed.
Yes, it’s just a detail as far as the story is concerned–the handedness of the pitcher doesn’t really matter, right? But still, how hard would it have been to get that right, and where are the lobbyists for left-handed people? I mean, this really can’t stand, can it? That’s lefty discrimination. [healthy grin]
For me the lack of historical factualism in this kind of a film detracts from the power of the story because it tells me the filmmakers didn’t feel the story alone was enough. The bean ball inclusion was particularly aggravating. For me it shows a lack of respect for what Robinson really did. I do not need a trumped-up beaning to understand the vitriol that Robinson faced in 1947. I see no need to sensationalize the process he went through with a fake timeline that included a beaning that did not happen (Robinson was apparently beaned in 1949, two years later– by a Pittsburgh pitcher who was not Ostermueller, BTW. But this story was about 1947). The truth is that Ostermueller hit Robinson on the arm in 1947, and that it rallied the team to Robinson’s side. At best, all you could say is that the pitch was thrown at Jackie’s head, and that Robinson shielded himself with his arm. There was no reason to portray the pitch as a bean ball–except for the fact that a bean ball feels more spiteful.
But it gets worse. Let’s look at the opportunity loss, at what the film leaves out in deference to the bean ball.
By focusing on one bean ball, the film essentially misses the true nature of major league pitchers aggressiveness toward Jackie Robinson. Instead of one bean ball, the filmmakers could have shown a montage of the four times Jackie Robinson was hit by a pitch in the first month of his career (the one by Ostermueller being the last of the four). If they wanted to portray how hard major league pitchers were gunning for Robinson, they could have pointed out the no other player on the Dodgers got hit more than five times in the entire year. Instead, they opted for a passing reference by Branch Rickey that Jackie Robinson was “leading the league in being hit by pitches” while he schooled Pee Wee Reese on what it means to get threatened.
I suppose it could be noted that Robinson was hit nine times that year, and came in second in HBP to the St. Louis Cardinals’ Whitey Kurowski’s 10. This means Robinson was hit only five times the rest of the season–still a lot, but on the edge of normal for a guy who crowded the plate.
This truth for me is much stronger than the trumped up beaning. The truth is that for a month or more, National League pitchers had declared open season on throwing at black hitters, and that there was only one target that fit the bill. A trumped up beaning says there was this one man with isolated hatred. The truth says that there was a simmering resentment across all of baseball that was as deep as the game itself. The truth is that after that first month, that trial by fire, the league settled down. The truth is that Jackie Robinson got hit by a barrage of baseballs for a month and did nothing but get up and trot to first base, and that by those actions he beat the world. The truth appears to be that after the fourth time, his teammates saw a glimpse of the truth and rallied around him.
I admit that I came into the theater expecting to see a framework laid out that defined exactly what the social structure of the country was at the time. I expected to see segregation at its worst, I expected to see the death threats, the FBI, and the social upheaval that this was playing out against. Much of that is in the movie, but some is barely realized, and the rest is done in such an overt, one-note fashion that is seems to reduce the force of the blow (if that makes sense).
Despite all that, I left the theater happy that I had seen it, and happy that it exists. I liked 42. Jackie Robinson’s story is too important to forget, perhaps especially now that the problems the world faces are not so overt. Perhaps that’s why I left the theater thinking “42” is the worst movie I’ve ever enjoyed.