42 and the meaning of life

“As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” Proverbs 23:7

Watching the student workshop at the White House via youtube, I noticed a theme in the First Lady’s speech that I think echoes the intent of many Americans. “…you will be something great, you have everything it takes to make that happen.” – Michelle Obama

Desiring to be something great can be likened to the warnings that precede the verse I’ve quoted. Inasmuch as those warnings are targeting the desire for wealth, I believe it is synonymous with the desire for fame. I feel certain that is the subtle and effective lie conveyed to our culture today.

Rachel Robinson was asked what her motivation was for all the hard work, the striving, the perseverance that she and her husband endured. I think this is the question that can only be asked by a culture so paralyzed with the fear of these things, they’ve framed as alien the integrity inherit to life’s purpose.

With the cast and crew of the film, it’s content and message – especially after an allegory drought in the movies (more than is usual, I mean), I really wanted this movie to be great.

Unfortunately, I have to recommend this one only for a rental. The lacking subtext, dialogue and character development all made for a movie surpassed in quality by its own production design.

Brian Helgeland can deliver on screenplays, and when he chooses a good story to put words to, he turns out films like Mystic River, Payback, L.A. Confidential and Conspiracy Theory. In 42, Helgeland seems lost in a script based on a character whose principled life leaves the writer/director with surprisingly little in the way of moral grey areas like those protagonists of his former movies. Whereas a simple story about a man whose identity is not based on external influences would tend to delve deep into that life, Helgeland takes a passive approach and the audience is lead by the hand scene by scene, never really following a life narrative.

What I’ve read about Jackie Robinson leads me to believe that the sport he played was incidental to his impact. But like the movie’s title suggests in that it was named for the protagonist’s jersey, 42 tends to embrace posture over conviction. The movie stars baseball and anti-racism, with Jackie Robinson in a supporting role.

Harrison Ford nearly stole the show, and he probably couldn’t help it. Shrouded in “Jesus lighting”, cigar smoke, bushy eyebrows, his signature lop-sided smile and a gravely voice, his dialogue is designed to tickle ears first and then, if the swooning musical overtures allow, add something about why it’s important that Jackie, “has the guts not to fight back.”

But the story begs for more. We don’t know Branch Rickey – except that he loves baseball, and cigars, and that he wants to change the game’s “unwritten laws”, with a dose of medicine named 42. And the audience gets to know a persona in Robinson. These characters who seem so rich in their real lives are portrayed in the film as merely a part of the setting, which runs counter to the movie’s purported point.

In the movie, Jackie asks Branch several times why he’s helping him, why he’s doing this. Branch offers different answers. First, Branch says that he wants to win games and get to the world series – it’s about success. Later, Branch confesses that in his college days, he didn’t help a teammate who was broken by racism. But before ending on that note, Branch goes on to say that Jackie restored his love for baseball. The last answer only seems like an apology, especially after the first moments of the film have Branch with some other old crusties talking about bringing a black man into the white man’s game.

Branch says, “I don’t know who he is…” The real criteria are listed after this statement: he must be a man who can handle the pressure, who’s got plenty of years left to play, who plays great baseball and is a gentleman. This, like several scenes with potential, is glanced over as though filler. Great moments in the movie have Branch Rickey listening to the radio in the dark, or to the speakers announcing an away game while he looks out over an empty home field; leading through uncertainty, serving a cause he may not live to see fulfilled.

What I see today is a culture starving for validation and thinking it’s given as a consolation prize to victims. Anything beyond that means undue praise; we’re all a number waiting to be assigned a position.

I don’t believe Jackie Robinson thought of himself as a victim. I doubt he sought to validate himself as a man on the baseball field. It seems to me that pursuit would have ended without such a legacy, or even a loving family left behind after Robinson’s death in 1972.

After the student asked Rachel Robinson about her motivations for perseverance, she returned to her seat and there was a bit of surprise in Rachel Robinson’s tone. She answered, “[Our] main motivation for persevering was to have a full life, a decent life… what people tended to call ‘obstacles’ we tended to think of them as challenges.”

I fear that answer is lost on our culture today. It seems the validation so many of us seek is left somewhere in the vague, unattainable past, kept at arm’s length for fear of the responsibility success surely brings.

– Robinson’s principles to live by


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