Written & Directed by Brian Helgeland
Although not near as formidable as our friends in the Northeast, or Minnesota and the Dakotas, nor as biting or intimidating as say Alaska or for our neighbors north of the border in Canada, the winter months in All-American Ohio can get plenty cold, and for plenty long enough I may add. The pitter-patter of April showers brings with it a deluge of activity in this region, as many awaken from their winter hibernation to soak up what sun there is as the temperature begins to rise, and will most likely continue to do so much further past the point of comfort come July and August, the dog days of summer when the Indians and the Reds will be battling for position in their respective baseball divisions. All of this will give way once again to fall, when the Buckeyes football team will dominate the landscape of changing colors and falling leaves; all to simply go back into the cold winter months when I will once again be reunited with my old but familiar patchwork quilt, which brings me warmth and comfort.
Parts of it are both worn and torn, showing its age and how often its been used. But it does have its charm. There are patches that are pictures of beautiful places, and ultimately it means something to me, much more than a perfectly put together, store bought blanket made of down or silk or fleece with a thread count that makes my bank account look meager. That’s exactly what this film is, a well worn, patchwork quilt that means more to us in its ugly composition, but heartwarming meaningful narrative than the next summer blockbuster. And that’s because it has history, it is history, as slanted and polished as it may be. Accept its flaws and embrace its power and inspiration and at the heart of Brian Helgeland’s latest film you will find not only an entertaining film, but an important one as well.
The story of Jackie Robinson, his significance, is well known, becoming the first man of color to play in all white major league baseball. The timing of this film may seem anti-climactic with a black man having just won his second term in the White House, but racism still exists today, so any documentation of its horrors is a worthy story. The film is wrought with flaws, no doubt. The historical accuracy is questionable, placing Robinson in manufactured situation after situation just to drive home the terrible racism he faced, and the tremendous heroism with which he faced it. The almost laughable baseball sequences, which likewise are manufactured to show Robinson’s talents. The caricature-like performance from Harrison Ford as the daring General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, who brought Robinson into the white man’s game. They all stand separate as raggedy patches, second hand pieces of fabric, which are ultimately stitched together into Helgeland’s film.
As rough as they are separate, when placed together, all of these elements oddly gel into an old fashioned kind of film from old Hollywood, one which hearkens back to the melodramatic and perhaps even over the top. Surprisingly, the style suits the film, even in this day and age. It’s a breath of fresh air. Ford’s Rickey no longer seems like a caricature, but a character with a heart and soul, albeit one with a funny drawl maybe. The scene-chewing performance of Alan Tudyk (as racist opposing manager Ben Chapman) becomes a point of emphasis to highlight the great bravery with which Robinson played the game, and the melodramatic musings of Lucas Black (as sympathetic teammate Pee Wee Reese) become poignant and touching. Even the cheesy baseball sequences segue into a window into the truth that is Jackie Robinson, the core of him, which is simply that of one of the greatest to ever play the game. [Verdict is still out on John C. McGinley as famed broadcaster Red Barber though.]
Jackie Robinson is one of the most important social and cultural icons in the country’s history. End of story. So for a thrown together film like this, featuring a capable Chadwick Boseman (whose only previous credits mostly consist of guest spots on a variety of TV shows), and a myriad of other unknown or since forgotten cast members, for a film like this to work as well as it does, I have to chalk it up to good old-fashioned American idealism, the power of folklore combined with fact to fuse a based-on-a-true-story tale of importance and true inspiration. It wears its rough edges on its sleeves, in the stitches of the number on the back of its uniform, on the famed ’42’, in the stitches of time and of history. But if we just step back and reflect for a moment on this story, this film, we may very well see that instead of a bunch of uneven segments, what we really have is a charming patchwork quilt, which means more to us as Americans, a patchwork society, than perhaps we even know, and which can keep us warm on even the coldest nights and inspire us to have the courage to right a wrong at the heart of anything we love.
*** – Very Good