42 (2013)

Directed by Brian Helgeland
Directed by Brian Helgeland

42’s Brian Helgeland, director and writer of the film, does nothing short of what was expected with the story of Jackie Robinson. The film tells the story of Robinson’s journey into major league baseball in 1940’s America.

42 is done in the tradition of the American hero biopic. Slow pans over scenery. A script with a trail of seemingly unending one-liners. A feeling of being smothered by an America flag. Yes, freedom. Helgeland’s story does often feel like it’s all too aware of it’s historical relevance. You almost hear this film whispering to itself, “I am a biopic of an American legend.” Yes, it was a little cheesy at times. You got the feeling that you were hearing a script for much of the movie, rather than hearing natural dialogue. The thing about depicting historical events is that they are made worthy of depiction by their very uniqueness, making it unnecessary to saturate the dialogue with pithy one-liners. As the writing went, the film always felt very much on paper, a failure on Helgeland’s part.

You couldn’t help but feel for Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played Robinson. Not only because he was brilliantly

Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson and Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson
Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson and Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson

playing the role of a man who withstood the vitriol of human hatred in his quest to become a major league baseball player, no. But because Helgeland’s script only allowed him so much room to shine. However, he did, in an ironic testament to the ability of a black man to beat the odds against him Boseman’s performance was the most believable aspect of the film. Alongside Boseman was actress Nicole Beharie, who played Robinson’s wife, Rachel Robinson. Though her screen time was rather limited, Beharie emitted a light that spread across the entire film, to the point that you almost felt her heart beating with Boseman’s. Their on screen chemistry was of the more endearing aspects of the film.

Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey
Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey

As expected Harrison Ford performed. He perhaps meshed best with Helgeland’s script, for his character Branch Rickey, the Major League Baseball exec that introduced Robinson to the major leagues, fits quite naturally into the narrative that Helgeland seemed to be trying to construct. For some, the many tight shots of Ford delivering some clever or inspirational line may have come welcomed. For my part, I wished, but knew better than to expect, that the film did not so willfully shift the lens from Robinson’s personal journey to the supposed goodness of his white co-stars. Something missing from this film, other than a realistically written script, was a closer focus on Robinson as a hero for black America. The film follows a young black child, who we later find out goes onto be a major league player himself, but that connected needed to be stretched to the black communities in the time. The film suffered for not spending more time developing black characters, because American hero or not, Jackie Robinson is a hero to black Americans first. But this is to be expected, when the story is being told from a white man’s perspective. His treatment of race otherwise was better than I expected, and altogether very powerful in particular moments, due mostly to the talents of Boseman.

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson
Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson

Certain stories ought to be told. In all of it’s imperfections, 42 tells the story of an American hero, and for posterity’s sake, this film does its job.

Rating: 7.5/10


The Pianist (2002)

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? It you tickle us, we we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” 

Roman Polanski’s Academy Award winning film, The Pianist

Interestingly enough, this brief recitation of Shakespeare was not nearly the most poetic moment in Roman Polanski’s portrayal of the life of Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman in The Pianist. This film, one that has received much critical acclaim, tells the tale of an artist living through the bottomless chasm of human suffering that was the Holocaust. What Polanski delivers is remarkable.

The film is based on Wladyslaw Szpilman’s book Death of a City. It is an auto-biographical account of Szpilman’s experience during WWII. The film is exceptional in that it manages to capture a Nazi occupied Poland, and the nature of the hardships experienced there while also preserving a separate spatial plane for understandings of incongruous things, like  family, souls, and music. In times of keen suffering life seems to be reduced to the baser things, such as hunger or shelter. The director and the actors do a wonderful job of communicating this.

The film begins with Szpilman playing the piano, and it ends similarly. However, all that is between is a cacophony of loss and grief. There is a certain rhythmic quality to the progression of the film, not unlike that of the piece Szpilman performs (Ballade No. 1 in G minor, Chopin) for Nazi Wilm Hosenfeld, who upon discovering Szpilman beseeches him to play. The loss of music was a theme that I think, while subdued, was almost as strong as the calamity surrounding it. There is a scene wherein Szpilman is in hiding, and his lodging has a piano that he cannot play for fear of being discovered. So he sits at the piano and pantomimes playing a glorious song. The passion and warmth is Brody’s jaundiced, bearded, hollow face were magnificent. The dutiful conviction Brody brings to this scene and countless others is in large part what makes this film seem real. His beginnings as a famous pianist were cool and deferential. Those qualities carried throughout the film, unhampered by tragedy and echoes of unrepentant diaspora.

Adrien Brody as Władysław Szpilman

Wladyslaw Szpilman: It’s a funny time to say this, but… 
Halina: What? 
Wladyslaw Szpilman: I wish I knew you better. 

Polanski’s decisive focus on peripheral characters was something of value. There is a scene where a woman is killed during a Jewish uprising. A Nazi shoots her in the back and she falls to the ground, dead and prostrating in front of a hospital. There’s another scene wherein a troupe of Nazis intimidate a small group of Jews, of varying ages, into dancing and singing. In another scene, or rather a string of scenes, a woman is wailing the words ‘why did I do it?’ and we come to find out that she smothered her own child while hiding from Nazis. Another scene shows a woman asking around for her husband; this woman appears several times, each time asking is anyone has seen her husband. It is these scenes that allow us to remain in the first person without losing the impact of the collective trauma. This is done quite gracefully by Polanski.

Captain Wilm Hosenfeld: Thank God, not me. He wants us to survive. Well, that’s what we have to believe. 

Thomas Kretschmann as Captain Wilm Hosenfeld

The ray of light in this film is awarded to Nazi Wilm Hosenfeld, who ensured Szpilman’s survival by feeding and concealing him. Whose very existence is a defense against cynicism and the inclination human beings have to parse the world into black or white, good or bad. Of all the things Polanski achieved in this film, just choosing to tell the story is the greatest achievement.

I haven’t tallied up the numbers, but the Holocaust has got to be the most common piece of subject matter where the art of film is concerned. I think it captivates us so in that it challenges everything we presume to know about life, and humankind. The gravity of shared horror is great enough to award the Holocaust a permanent spot in the archive of humanity. Polanski’s masterful representation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s story was one worth watching, and one that will touch you.

Rating: 9/10