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‘42’ celebrates the glory of a hero’s journey

“42, The True Story of an American Legend” (2013). Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Lucas Black, Andre Holland, Alan Tudyk, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman, T.R. Knight, Toby Huss, John C. McGinley, Max Gail, Brad Beyer, James Pickens, Jr., Brett Cullen, Jesse Luken, Dusan Brown. Director: Brian Helgeland. Screenplay: Brian Helgeland. Web site. Trailer.

Our journey through life is often fraught with frustrations, pitfalls and setbacks. These conditions and events may seem so overwhelming that we might easily be tempted to throw in the towel. Under such circumstances, carrying forth with determination and commitment can be quite difficult without a little inspiration, but, fortunately, that’s something to be found in ample quantities in the moving new sports drama, “42, The True Story of an American Legend,” the film biography of baseball great Jackie Robinson.

The U.S. was a nation on the brink of sweeping social change in the wake of World War II. After having successfully defeated Germany’s fascist regime, Americans’ attitudes were slowly shifting in such areas as civil rights and racial equality. The thinking was that, if minorities like African-Americans could be called upon to serve their country in time of war, then they should also be eligible to share in and enjoy the basic rights they helped fight to protect. These changing outlooks were reflected in various segments of society, too, like professional sports, but nowhere did this become more apparent than in America’s pastime, baseball.

It’s not that the sport didn’t have its share of minorities; black players could indeed be found on baseball diamonds across the country, but they were relegated to their own separate ranks, the Negro leagues. There were plenty of great competitors, too, but the sport’s practice of strictly imposed segregation, fueled by deeply entrenched racist attitudes, kept them isolated, preventing them from showing off their talents to mainstream Major League audiences. But that all changed in late 1945, when Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) made a bold decision that would revolutionize the game forever.

Recognizing the untapped talent present in the Negro leagues, Rickey decided to draw upon it to bolster the Dodgers’ roster. He saw this move as a means to bring new blood on board to help the team capture the National League pennant, as well as a way to attract greater numbers of black spectators (“Dollars aren’t black or white; they’re green,” as he put it). But, most of all, Rickey saw it as the right thing to do, a decision driven by highly personal considerations. He had his eye on one player in particular, a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League named Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). His plan was to bring Robinson on board with the Dodgers’ farm club, the Montreal Royals of the International League, where he could be groomed for a subsequent move up to the Big Show.

But the courageous GM’s gesture was not without its risks. Rickey knew that prevailing racial attitudes would make Robinson the target of vicious verbal attacks (if not more) from prejudiced spectators. He also knew that his new recruit would face intense scrutiny from the press (some of whom would likely see his signing as a “novelty”), as well as from the managers and players of opposing squads and even from some of his own teammates, like pitcher Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer). And then there were the segregationist Jim Crow laws that were still in place in certain parts of the country, the impact of which would affect such basic logistical considerations as what hotels Jackie would be allowed to stay at while the Dodgers were on the road. On top of all that, Robinson had a reputation for his temper, something that Rickey knew Jackie would have to control if he were to be a success as a player, as a representative of the Dodgers and as an inspiration for his peers, both on and off the field.

Despite the inherent challenges, Robinson and Rickey took up the cause. And, once the plan was launched, all of the anticipated concerns revealed themselves. But, if that weren’t enough, Jackie was tested in other ways, such as bad calls from umpires, deliberately thrown wild pitches intended to inflict physical harm while at bat, and relentless taunting from opposing players and managers, such as Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), an unabashed racist. However, in spite of everything, Jackie kept his word about keeping his cool, a monumental task in light of everything he faced. Regardless of whatever came his way, No. 42 came through it all, becoming the star he and Rickey knew he could be and paving the way for future generations of ball players who were judged on their skills, not on their skin color.

Trying the untried and exploring the unexplored are two of the most ambitious, but potentially most rewarding undertakings one can attempt as a conscious creation practitioner. Anyone who has ever taken a leap of faith or dared to dream the seemingly impossible understands what this is all about. But the hoped-for outcomes of such endeavors will never materialize unless one holds beliefs that support the desired results. Fortunately, Robinson and Rickey had suitable beliefs in place in several significant areas when they embarked on their epic adventure together:

* Facing fear, cultivating courage and living heroically. Those who stay locked in fear stay locked in place, so anyone seeking to fulfill a cherished goal must be willing to face whatever trepidation might hinder progress toward achieving it. Fostering beliefs that address this concern is a good starting point. But, as effective as that step is, forming and embracing beliefs that promote courage and impel one to live a truly heroic life is even better, a move that takes that first step and puts it on steroids. While the former approach may be comparable to standing one’s ground in the face of adversity, the latter is tantamount to valiantly charging ahead with commitment and heartfelt conviction.

Robinson and Rickey embodied these beliefs and unconditionally drew upon them in addressing their individual and collective challenges. Both were willing to take the heat for their decisions. Both were adept at coming up with innovative solutions for confronting the problems they faced. But, perhaps most importantly, both exuded grace under pressure, letting their actions speak for them and their beliefs. For Rickey, this was apparent in his unwavering managerial resolve; for Robinson, it surfaced through his play on the field; and for both, the result was success.

* Perseverance wins. As any conscious creator knows, developing the beliefs we need to manifest our desires is certainly easy enough to accomplish, but maintaining our focus on them may be considerably more difficult. This is where the value of perseverance comes in, for, without it, our determination may wane, especially if doubt, fear or contradiction become wrapped up in the mix. Such influences can undermine our materialization efforts, no matter how seemingly committed we may be to them.

Robinson was indeed committed to his craft, determined to show the world what he could do, not as a black baseball player but as a baseball player who just happened to be black. But, such principled, steadfast conviction aside, he also knew he had to perform every time he stepped onto the field, and such awareness fueled his resolve – and his results. Even the brutally malicious racial insults inflicted upon him – as painful as they were – ironically served to motivate him, galvanizing him in his beliefs to come through for his team, his peers and himself. That kind of dedicated perseverance wins every time.

* Building support builds success. From a purely theoretical standpoint, it might be tempting to think that our beliefs, applied with conviction, should be enough to see us through in realizing our objectives. However, as physical beings, we seek to manifest physical outcomes, results that, by their very nature, obviously involve elements possessing physical attributes, especially in the solutions we employ. This, of necessity, includes the manifestation of the people, places and things that appear in our lives and contribute to a particular scenario’s ultimate unfolding. But the elements that are arguably the most important are those that we draw to us to help support us in our creative efforts.

With the deck seemingly stacked against him, Robinson might have easily viewed “support” as an elusive commodity in the pursuit of his quest. However, despite such long odds, he was actually quite successful in attracting it. First and foremost, there was Rickey, the most ardent champion of his cause. And then there was his loving wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), who saw him through every ordeal he faced. Before long, other allies rallied to his side, such as sports writer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who Rickey hired to help shepherd Robinson through the minefield of professional baseball and who, as a fellow African-American, sympathized with Jackie’s plight, often facing comparable forms of discrimination, such as deliberate exclusion from press boxes at Major League ballparks. But perhaps the support that was most gratifying came from other members of the Dodgers organization, such as manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) and teammates Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) and Eddie Stanky (Jesse Luken), who stood by his side when so many others would not.

The support Robinson generated enabled him to shine as the star he knew he could be, which, in turn, helped him win over legions of fans who applauded his many on-field triumphs. In his first season with the Dodgers, he helped his team capture the coveted National League pennant that Rickey had so desperately sought. He also opened the door for other black players to join the ranks of the Major Leagues not long after his historic debut. And his example encouraged ball players for generations to come, such as young Ed Charles (Dusan Brown), who, as a child, was so inspired by Robinson that he followed in his hero’s footsteps, eventually becoming a Major League player himself.

Robinson left quite a legacy in the baseball world, but, by his actions, he also had tremendous impact on the civil rights movement. He came to serve as a symbol of so much, arguably attaining the status of an icon. In fact, these days, whenever anyone breaks through an ostensibly impenetrable barrier of some kind, that pioneer is often compared to Jackie Robinson. Now that’s a hero, if I do say so myself.

As is the case with any picture of a biographical nature, the outcome of the story is, of course, never in doubt, so the real trick in captivating audiences lies with how well the filmmakers get viewers to the anticipated conclusion. In the case of “42,” the film is rather typical of comparable sports dramas – the slow motion action shots come up at just the right moment, the triumphant musical score swirls on cue, etc. But, despite the picture’s somewhat conventional approach, it’s well-done formula material, the kind of heart-tugging hero worship yarn that unashamedly moves even the manliest of men to tears. It’s an excellent baseball drama in the same vein as films like “The Natural” (1984) and a fine example of a sports underdog tale, particularly one where the hero competes under extenuating circumstances, as seen in movies like “Glory Road” (2006), “The Express” (2008) and “The Other Dream Team” (2012). Its Mark Isham soundtrack is, admittedly, a little overdramatic (somewhat uncharacteristic for the longtime screen composer), but, given the picture’s subject matter and formulaic approach, I suppose that’s to be expected.

“42” is also a terrific period piece, effectively capturing the look and feel of the time. It was especially gratifying to see its well-written script accurately reflecting the racial attitudes of the period, successfully resisting the temptation to sugar-coat the language or to present a revisionist, politically correct account of the prejudice at the time. The film is capably acted across the board, but Ford is the real standout here. This is easily the best work he’s done in a long time, perhaps because the septuagenarian is playing his first age-appropriate role in quite a while. I sincerely hope he’s not left out of some very deserving supporting actor nominations when awards season rolls around.

In an age that’s often as cynical as ours is, it’s refreshing to be genuinely inspired by the story of a true hero. Jackie Robinson was that indeed, and on so many levels, too. Drawing from his courageous, determined example is something we should all consider when taking on life’s challenges, no matter how great or how small, for, if we do so, success can’t be far behind.

Photo by D. Stevens, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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