© 2013 Ray Wong

The golden rule is that biopics are difficult to do well, especially biopics of someone as iconic and popular as Jackie Robinson, the first African-American Major League Baseball player in American history.

In 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) has a crazy idea: he wants to recruit an African-American ballplayer. Everyone tells him it's a bad idea, but Rickey is determined to find the one player who would prove them all wrong. He finds such a man in Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Bosman), a rookie Rickey recruits to the Montreal Royals despite the displeasure of his players. Even then, Robinson poses no threat to the Dodgers and they tend to let him be, because Rickey says so.

Despite his temper, Jackie learns to control his emotions and ignore the racial slurs and unjust treatments he is and will be getting as he becomes more and more prominent in the sports. Rickey once tells him, "I want a player who has the guts not to fight back." Rickey and Jackie both know that they will have to turn the other cheek if they want to make history, as one wrong move will set them and "integration" back. The only way Jackie is going to change minds is to be a great player that everyone can't refuse to recognize.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson finally make it to the Dodgers. Unfortunately, even some his own teammates refuse to play with him. They only relent because Coach Durocher (Christopher Meloni) is able to intimate and persuade them. But when Durocher is suspended, Rickey and Jackie must face a brewing storm that they may not be able to weather, as the hostility toward Robinson grows while he, ironically, helps the Dodgers getting closer and closer to the Pennant. Can Jackie Robinson endure the racial attacks to triumph?

Harrison Ford (Cowboys & Aliens) seems to have a great time playing the Stogie-chewing Rickey, what with his trademarked smirk and curmudgeon charisma. There is a fine line between playing such a character and a caricature, and Ford walks that line rather well. Even though his Rickey is over the top and larger than life, never does he act or sound unauthentic. Soon you forget this is Harrison Ford, but a lovable guy who just wants to put fairness and dignity back into the game he loves.

Chadwich Bosman (The Kill Hole) is rather good as Jackie Robinson. Bosman definitely has the physicality, the good looks, and the charisma to pull it off. Though his Robinson is perhaps somewhat too earnest and gentle (we expect to see certain cockiness and quick temper), Bosman manages to give the role a voice, and he displays enough of his dark side and doubts to make us care about Jackie Robinson as a human being who triumphs over tremendous pressure and expectations.

The supporting cast is all excellent, from Nicole Beharie (The Last Fall) who plays Robinson's lovely and supportive wife, to Christopher Meloni (Dirty Movie) as the gruff and unbiased Durocher, to iconic Dodgers players such as Pee Wee Reece and Dixie Walker by Lucas Black and Ryan Merriman respectively. Andre Holland (Bride Wars) gives an affecting performance as Wendell Smith, an African-American journalist, and Alan Tudyk (Wreck-It Ralph) gives one of the most shocking and unnerving performances as Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who for over five minutes yells racial epithets to Jackie Robinson.

Writer-Director Brian Helgeland (A Knight's Tale) tackles Jackie Robinson's story with an old-school style and sentiment. This movie could have been made by Disney, and it does have all the typical Disney family movie trappings (despite the aforementioned racial epithets). The characters are mostly larger than life, animated and likable. Even the "villains" are not truly villains, but flawed people who are victims of their times and ingrained prejudices.

While Helgeland energetically and earnestly writes and puts together a beautifully crafted film about one of the most beloved figures in history, one can't ignore the fact that Helgeland also sugarcoats a lot. Sure, Robinson's struggle is there. The racism is there. But he also portrays the post-war America, especially among African-Americans, a glossy reality that feels sweetened and sentimentalized. Even the racism in the film feels rather benign at times, no more than catcalling and a few easy punches. I understand that Helgeland has to balance between telling Robinson's story vs. portraying America as still a land of the free and home for the brave. The movie has that nice, wholesome Americana look and feel as most post-war movies tend to have. But in light of the thematic elements in the films, I can't help but feel a bit letdown by its unabashed sentimentality that skews the harsh reality of a segregated country.

Still, I totally enjoy what the movie has to offer, and the inspirational story of Robinson as well as how his fellow men could see past their racial prisms and limitations. There is something to learn from this, even in 2013.

Stars: Harrison Ford, Chadwick Boseman, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Alan Tudyk, Andre Holland
Director: Brian Helgeland
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for thematic elements, language
Running Time: 128 minutes


Script - 7
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 7
Production - 8

Total - 7.6 out of 10.0 

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