Artful Dodgers

By Denby, David | The New Yorker, April 22, 2013 | Go to article overview

Artful Dodgers


Denby, David, The New Yorker


Jackie Robinson had a heart-stopping way of taking a lead off third base. He didn't drift a few feet off the bag and wait for the pitch, as most runners do. Facing the pitcher, he hopped sideways down the line, fluttering his fingers like a hummingbird's wings, then skittered back toward third, then down the line toward home again, maybe going a little farther than the last time. He stole home nineteen times in his ten-year major-league career (1947-56), and the threat that he might suddenly break for the plate unnerved pitchers, some of whom balked or accidentally grooved the ball to the batter. Players before Robinson had been ferocious on the base paths--Ty Cobb, in particular--and later players, like Maury Wills and Rickey Henderson, ran faster than Robinson, who had a pigeon-toed stride, his arms and shoulders churning the air. No one else, however, made baserunning so alarming a spectacle of risk and intimidation. But at bat Robinson was sternly composed. He stood close to the plate and held the bat high. As the pitch came in, he pulled the bat down, angled it parallel to the ground, and took a level swing--a swing very different from the homer-seeking, flailing uppercut that has become standard among current players, who have produced the highest strikeout numbers in baseball history. Robinson didn't strike out much, and his career batting average was .311.

"42" is the writer-director Brian Helgeland's sturdy, large-scale bio-pic of Jackie Robinson in his crucial years--from 1945, when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him to a minor-league contract, through 1947, when he broke the color barrier in the major leagues and led the Dodgers to a pennant. Helgeland, who wrote the screenplays for "L.A. Confidential" and "Mystic River," gets a lot of things right, most centrally the way that Robinson's electrifying body charged around the field. Chadwick Boseman, the lion-eyed actor who plays Robinson, has a contemporary (probably gym-built) shape, with a narrow waist and broad shoulders, in contrast to Robinson's barrel-chested burliness. (By the time Robinson got to the Dodgers, he was twenty-eight and putting on weight.) Yet Boseman is still the most physically convincing of the many actors who have portrayed star baseball players in the movies. He erases memories of Gary Cooper's Lou Gehrig, and William Bendix's Babe. He plays Robinson better than Robinson played himself in the pious, lame, cheaply made "Jackie Robinson Story," from 1950. Boseman is quiet, watchful, often withdrawn, with a wary intelligence that he releases through glances and gestures.

In the beginning, there was the lordly general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), a Bible-quoting, sixty-four-year-old Republican with a strong moralistic streak and a sharp eye for business. "I'm gonna bring a Negro to the Brooklyn Dodgers," Rickey tells his astonished associates. Harrison Ford has Rickey's thick eyebrows and matted hair, his bow ties, wire-framed glasses, and cigars. His performance is a piece of high comedy: when he first appears, his voice breaks into a preliminary rumble before he enunciates any intelligible syllables, then he thunders forth. Ford gives this crusty old entrepreneur a wide streak of arrogant mischief. Rickey enjoys the trouble he's making among white owners, managers, and players. He enjoys making money, too, by creating a sensation that fills the ballpark.

In 1945, he searches for the right player. The great black catcher Roy Campanella is "too sweet--they'll eat him alive," Rickey says. In his Brooklyn office, he interviews a rather abashed and puzzled Robinson, who was playing in the Negro Leagues at the time. Helgeland pushes the actors hard: Rickey tells Robinson what he wants out of him, then mimics, in various repulsive voices, the racists whom Robinson will likely meet. Ford seems to be exploding in a mixture of glee and shame. Will Robinson fight back? "Answer me, you black son of a bitch! …

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