The Movie 42 More Schmaltzy than Heroic

42 (2013)
Directed by Brian Helgeland
Warner Brothers, 128 minutes, PG-13 (racist language)
* *

Jackie Robinson (1919-72) was a true American hero whose reintegration of Major League Baseball (MLB) was a landmark moment in the struggle for African-American civil rights. To put his achievement in context, Robinson defied prevailing segregation patterns in 1947, a full seven years before the Brown v. the Board of Education decision declared segregated public education unconstitutional, eight years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus, and seventeen years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act dismantled legal Jim Crow systems. In 1997, MLB retired Jackie Robinson’s jersey number 42 and, when Mariano Rivera retires after the 2013 season, no more MLB players will wear it. Does Jackie Robinson deserve a movie? You bet, but he deserves a better one than 42.

42 isn’t horrible–it’s Hollywood. That, of course, is often just a step or two above horrible, and seldom reaches higher than the lowest common denominator. Moreover, with the exception of boxing, few American sports are very convincing on the screen. In some respect, nearly all baseball films are a variant of The Natural, which is to say they are uniformed representations of what the late Joseph Campbell called “the hero’s journey.” In that cycle, an unlikely person–a black man in this case–receives a call to adventure, tries to refuse, is convinced not to by a mentor (Brooklyn Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey), and then crosses the “threshold” from the “ordinary” to the “special” world. The hero is tested, bribed, and threatened before he undergoes a symbolic rebirth and embraces his special mission. In the end, he re-crosses the threshold and returns to the ordinary realm.

That’s the story arc in 42, though the bulk of the film centers on Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) relationship with Rickey (Harrison Ford), and how Jackie slowly wins the respect of skeptical and (in some cases) racist teammates during the 1947 MLB season. Because it’s Hollywood, numerous factual liberties are taken in the script (penned by director Helgeland). Boston Globe sportswriter Bob Ryan recently cataloged some of the film’s inaccuracies. These could be forgiven, if they had made the film more dramatic and enhanced our appreciation for Robinson. Alas, the film has a lightweight “Gee whiz!” feel, as if Robinson’s achievement was little more than a collective national task necessary to enhance American greatness. Nonsense! Robinson didn’t tread a teleological path; he thumbed his nose at convention and spat in the face of racism. We see the enormity of his accomplishment just once in the film–a scene in which Robinson is being brutally hectored by Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk). There is name calling elsewhere and allusions of danger, but most of the film is so elegiac it could have been a joint project between Ron Howard and Ken Burns. Add Mark Isham’s cloying soundtrack, Nicole Beharie’s syrupy, puppy-dog eyed take on Rachel Robinson, and Dodger teammates undergoing racial conversion like so many Baptists at a river wash-me-down, and watching 42 is frequently like downing a bowl of Trix with extra sugar.

Luckily, a few good performances save 42 from being a total disaster. Boseman is excellent as Robinson and strikes the right balance between gritty determination, smoldering anger, and inner vulnerability. The word “irascible” is often applied to Rickey and Harrison Ford does a credible job at being a gravely voiced, obstinate moralizer, even if he is a tad too folksy at times. Andre Holland does a fine turn as black sportswriter Wendell Phillips, the man who was Jackie’s road partner during his 1947 trial by fire. A lot of the minor characters are decent, though many of them seem to have been chosen because they look vaguely like someone more famous: Christopher Meloni’s Leo Durocher evokes John Sayles, Beharie looks like Meaghan Good, Holland is reminiscent of a younger Spike Lee, and Tudyk looks like a red-headed less beefy version of Curt Schilling.

The movie stops after 1947, another aspect of Helgeland’s pat directorial and storytelling style. Robinson didn’t really integrate MLB; black players competed until 1889. Nor was integration a done deal after 1947; the Boston Red Sox didn’t integrate until 1959, three years after Jackie retired. For the record, don’t think of Jackie Robinson as a consistent champion of civil rights either; he was a conservative Nixon Republican when he died of a heart attack in 1972. None of this diminishes the heroism of Robinson’s deeds as a racial pioneer. It’s a great story-–a much better one than Helgeland gives us. --Rob Weir


Eden Book 1 is Page-Turning Junk Food

EDEN BOOK 1 (2012)
By David Holley
Misery Loves Company Publishing
* *

I won’t mince words–Eden Book 1 is an awkward, clunky book, even by the relatively low standards of pulp science fiction. First-time novelist David Holley comes from a background in advertising and graffiti art, both of which influence this book. Like advertising, Holley piggybacks on what is hot rather than substantive. He rides current waves of cynicism through his post-apocalyptic, dystopian setting, and gloms onto contemporary trends such as glamorizing soldier-warriors, engaging in disaster-of-the-day reporting, and sticking zombies into every narrative. Like graffiti art, much of Holley’s intent is internal and enigmatic for those living outside his vision. (Did you ever try to decipher a tagged wall?) For all of that, his book is a page-turner—more accurately a screen-flipper as it’s an e-book­–that one zips through. If you’re looking for a trashy, thrill-a-minute bit of beach reading, this one won’t tax your intellect.

The year is 2022 and the United States has been wiped off the map, weakened by wars against Muslim terrorists, and then leveled by volcanic eruptions and tsunamis off the West Coat. Okay—we already have a problem. Holley simply states the devastation without explaining how ocean waters managed to traverse the Coastal Range, the Sierra Nevadas, and the Rockies! If tsunamis also formed on the Atlantic and caused seas to rise, why does Britain still exist? He needs to explain that because the major protagonists of his book are British, former Special Forces officer Noah Lockhart and his medical researcher wife, Evelyn.

The set up is that the Muslim uprising has just been defeated, but it cost Noah most of his unit. He is burnt out, resigns his commission, and decides to reconnect with Evelyn by taking a four-hour space shuttle flight to New Zealand for some much needed detox time. En route, the shuttle is sabotaged by an onboard terrorist and the shuttle breaks into sections and plummets to earth. The Lockharts are part of a small survivor group that manages to board rafts and make their way to some remote, uninhabited part of the South Island of New Zealand. All of Noah’s survival skills will be put to test as he tries to captain his intrepid band across mountains and ravines and through thick bush to civilization. Other major players include 18-year-old twins Max and Mia, and a Japanese couple, Hiroshi and Luna, whose daughter died in the shuttle’s impact. Did I mention that Mia is clairvoyant, or that Noah just happened to grab all manner of equipment, food, and spices (!) before the shuttle crashed? Good thing about the spices—just the sort of thing one needs when one is sautéing grubs. Noah’s backpack is the equivalent of Captain Kangaroo’s pockets—there always seems to be duct tape, a bit of rope, or some sustaining cashews at just the right moment.

Gilligan’s Island this isn’t. In their quest to survive, our crew will encounter obstacles such as another tsunami, a volcano about to explode, several Maori of questionable character, a pandemic, and, of course, some zombies. The book fails on three basic levels: plot, plausibility, and prose. If you think Dan Brown stretches logic, wait until you wend your way through Holley. His book is stuffed with more coincidences than a sophomore explaining why his research paper isn’t finished. It would be fair to say that the only consistent narrative device at work is convenience. There are also gag-me purple passages throughout the book, including (seriously) references to Noah’s “thick manhood.”

I will not deny that Eden Book 1 is a breezy read with entertaining moments, nor that I soared through it. (I had just finished a far weightier book and was looking for just such a diversion.) The book is offered for $3.99 on Amazon. That’s about $3 too high in my view, but as long as you know this book is not The Road and David Holley is no Cormac McCarthy, you can devour it as you might processed snack food. I don’t regret having read it, but neither will I indulge in forthcoming sequels. –Rob Weir


Making a Hobby (Lobby) or Abusing the First Amendment


Here is the actual First Amendment, not the one the Christian Taliban claims. I’ve bolded the relevant parts, lest there be any confusion.

Amendment I:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The latest sanctimonious tyrant seeking to use religion to hide its agenda is the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby chain. Hobby Lobby calls itself a “profit-making company… but also a ministry.” Hobby Lobby is seeking exemption from the upcoming federal health care law that requires companies to buy insurance that includes birth control coverage. It argues that such coverage, especially things such as the morning-after pill, violates its religious beliefs and is therefore a First Amendment violation. The  Justice Department has challenged that view.

If you are a fan of freedom of choice, you should be rooting for the Feds, no matter which side of the political spectrum you claim as your own. If Hobby Lobby wins, it will be the morality-based equivalent of the Citizens United decision in that it will define a company as a person. Even more dangerously, it will define a collective (the company) as a single individual, thereby opening Pandora’s box to determine whose voice speaks for that one big collective individual–an oxymoron is ever there was one. (Founder? CEO? CFO? Largest stockholder?)

I’m sure there are those who would argue that owners of a company should be able to do what they wish with their firms. I’d agree–on an individual basis. An owner can, if he wishes, shutter the firm or sell it. If the Hobby Lobby CEO wants to buy an insurance policy without birth control coverage for himself, fine; the First Amendment grants that right. But listen to what Justice Department lawyer Alisa Klein says: “If you make an exemption for the employer, it comes at the expense of the employee.” Klein’s statement reveals the absurdity of the lawsuit. Hobby Lobby isn’t some mom-and-pop store selling model airplanes to preadolescent boys; it’s a chain of 500 stores in 41 states with 13,000 employees. 

Klein raises an important point. What about “the people” mentioned in the First Amendment? And what do we mean by a “company?” Is it one or two puffed up evangelists in Oklahoma, or is it also the firm’s “people” in the form of its 13,000 employees, its wholesalers, its investors, and its customers? Hobby Lobby claims to be a “biblically founded business.” Yeah, so what? It does business in the public sphere where it must conform to all manner of public mandates such as labor laws, safety codes, building inspection laws, and utility restrictions. Moreover, because it’s a profit-making firm, it has no grounds to claim religion-based tax exemptions. (Remember–the Supreme Court has already ruled that health care mandates are a form of taxation.) I suspect the ulterior motive is that Hobby Lobby is part of the “Obamacare” Fear Squad seeking to undermine reform so that it can foist cheaper but inferior health insurance plans on employees.   

I could be wrong about that last sentence, but true religious freedom is where the rubber meets the road for me. If you must, let’s take it back to the individual level. Count me among those that are fed up with people using Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, Buddha, or anyone else to tell me what moral decisions I should make. The First Amendment allows you to make decisions for you, but the moment you tell me what I must believe, there is but one path to compelling me to comply: have Congress pass a law that privileges that viewpoint. If you think my use of the term “Christian Taliban” in the lead is harsh, I would reply that there’s not an iota of moral or substantive difference between a Christian telling Americans what they can do and the Taliban imposing Sharia law in Afghan tribal regions under its control. What’s the moral difference between telling a woman she must play Russian roulette with her body, or telling her she must wear a chador?

To use a line I’ve used before, I’m not against religion, but I wish to reserve the right to be against your religion. I’m also against companies acting tyrannically and hiding behind the First Amendment when they do so. And what else other than tyranny should we call foisting your morality upon 13,000 employees?

If you agree, here’s a useful first step. Contact Hobby Lobby Customer Service and tell them you are an ex-customer until they change their policy. Here’s the link: http://www.hobbylobby.com/customer_service/customer_service.cfm