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Original Issue

The Magic Number

42 is the first full-length feature film about Jackie Robinson in more than 60 years. It was worth the wait

Among the many languages of the Civil Rights movement—the oratory of Martin Luther King Jr., the determined activism of Medgar Evers, the poetry of Langston Hughes—perhaps none resonated with more simple eloquence than the baseball playing of Jackie Robinson. The fact that Robinson played in the major leagues made the marquee and drew the crowds, but it was how he played that reformed prejudice and delivered the more cogent blow to ignorance and hate.

The 28-year-old Robinson broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, two years after the club plucked him from the Negro leagues' Kansas City Monarchs. From his first game, he scorched the base paths and handled the bat with panache and confidence. And even as he adjusted throughout his rookie year to a new position, first base, and fought through a batting slump, his approach and style did not waver.

The figure Robinson cut just before and during his debut season forms fertile ground for the engaging new movie 42. The film gets its strength in large part through its focus—essentially 18 months in the life of Robinson, the Dodgers and baseball. The long-ranging implications of the Robinson experiment add unspoken heft to the story by writer-director Brian Helgeland.

Startlingly, this is the first full-length film about Robinson since The Jackie Robinson Story 63 years ago. In that movie Robinson, then four years into his 10-year career, played himself—a potentially daunting standard for 42 star Chadwick Boseman. But Boseman, 30, is the best part of this new film, infusing his Robinson with a restrained intensity that is evident when he is in the office of general manager Branch Rickey (an earnest Harrison Ford), in the Dodgers' clubhouse and, certainly, as he bounces away from first base, fingers twitching, dust raised around his ankles. "I am delighted and moved by his performance," says Robinson's widow, Rachel, now 90. "He has a quiet dignity that reminds me of Jack. And he got the stance."

42 successfully straddles the line between sticking to the facts and taking calculated liberties. Helgeland, for example, exaggerates a scene in which Brooklyn's Kentucky-born shortstop Pee Wee Reese (played by Lucas Black) puts an arm around Robinson near first base at Crosley Field in Cincinnati, where the crowd was bombarding him with racial insults. The incident has long been part of the legend of 1947 although its elevation has always surprised Rachel. "It was a simple gesture that has been turned into a heroic act," she says. In 42 the simple gesture gets full leverage: Reese drapes his arm across Robinson's shoulders for more than 35 seconds, and their dialogue roams from the Civil War to Reese thanking Robinson for standing beside him and thus letting Reese's family in the stands "know who I am." The scene also allows Helgeland to get off one of his best lines. "Maybe tomorrow we'll all wear 42," Reese says to Jackie. "That way they won't be able to tell us apart."

On April 15, for the fifth straight year, every major leaguer will indeed wear number 42, and all of them, one suspects, know Robinson's name. Fewer though, may know how aggressively and intelligently he played, and the difference that it made. 42 can show them.


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