Jackie Robinson is arguably the single most important sports figure of the 20th century. He personified athletic excellence, and became the catalyst for massive social change when Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager, made the former UCLA standout the first black player in Major League Baseball. He endured taunts and threats from fans, sportswriters, opponents, and teammates, handling all of it with the kind of public self-control that would become the hallmark of Martin Luther King’s approach to the civil-rights movement.
That’s the kind of life that not only should and does inspire millions of people, it’s also the stuff of traditionally earnest and dry biopics -- the kind that win Oscars but aren’t remembered with much affection by hardcore movie lovers or general audiences. Thankfully, 42, writer/director Brian Helgeland’s telling of this remarkable story, manages to paint Robinson as a nearly flawless icon without turning him into a boring wax figure.
He’s helped immeasurably by Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Robinson. He not only comes off as credible in the baseball scenes, but Boseman’s Jackie has an engagingly unsettled look in his eyes most of the time. When he’s not on the field or with his wife, he’s on guard, and in those moments we get a feeling for how deep the brutal insults and unfair treatment hit him. As different characters say throughout the movie, Jackie just wants to play ball, and when he’s on the field, Boseman makes Jackie’s intensity a kick; his side-to-side hop as he takes a bigger and bigger lead before stealing a base is a comic dance of athletic superiority.
Boseman gets superb support from Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, who gets most of the laugh lines Helgeland weds into the script. This is probably the best outlet Ford has ever found for his earnest side -- an aspect of his persona that he often indulges to less interesting effect than his darker-tinged performances in movies like The Mosquito Coast and Blade Runner. Here, Rickey’s religious conviction, his quiet insistence that the Dodgers will sign a black player, and the palpable sympathy he feels for what Jackie endures -- combined with his sense of humor -- give Ford the richest character he’s played in more than 20 years. If this film came out later in the year, he’d be in the running for awards.
The supporting cast are just as impressive as the two leads. Christopher Meloni is so good as headstrong Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (a sports figure also worthy of a first-rate, gritty biopic) that we’re genuinely bummed when his character leaves the movie early; Nicole Beharie, playing Jackie’s wife, makes sure her character is never less than noble or more than human; Lucas Black gets a fine scene as the Southern shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who becomes Robinson’s unexpected ally; you wish Hamish Linklater had more to do as pitcher Ralph Branca; Alan Tudyk is memorably scummy as a virulently racist opposing manager; and John C. McGinley does such a witty impression of broadcaster Red Barber that it’s a shame he doesn’t narrate the whole movie. As a writer, Helgeland (who has an Oscar for co-writing another period piece, L.A. Confidential) knows how to give all of his actors just enough material to keep them interesting, while never removing his focus from Robinson and Rickey.
Helgeland does efficient work here as a director. There aren’t that many show-offy moments, but he does go for a heavy-handed final montage depicting Jackie being safe at home both on the field and in his wife’s arms. However, he did hire talented cinematographer Don Burgess as his DP, and together they give the film a look that casts everything in a warmly nostalgic golden hue while consistently flattering actors with very different skin tones by expertly lighting them within the same shot.
Spike Lee tried for many years to get a biopic of Jackie Robinson made, and while he certainly wouldn’t have come up with this combination of Gandhi and The Natural plus some good laughs, his movie most likely wouldn’t have been quite as obvious. Helgeland’s film is square, but it’s a really solidly built square -- the kind of square that can be used as a foundation for something sturdy and true.
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