Sunday, May 26, 2013


The hell-hole that is present-day Hollywood (the shark pit that came into being in the 1980s in an increasingly squishy response to the escalating rapacities of Reaganism) has, after some considerable effort, taken down the baseball bio-pic.

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, here having a somewhat strained reunion
in the early 60s, would likely evidence even wider-eyed astonishment at
the ham-fisted dramatics and casual slander found in 42...
42, directed and written by Brian Helgeland, takes a page of out the demonological playbook usually reserved for the Fox News contingent and creates a completely false set of events to "bolster" a story that needed no such artificial augmentation.

Helgeland, a lauded veteran talent whose involvement in two problematic neo-noir "masterpieces" (L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) has given him the kind of credibility more akin to a ticking time bomb than any guarantee of principle or actual craftsmanship, has committed a completely unwarranted and reprehensible slander in his treacly, tendentious retelling of the Jackie Robinson story, and deserves nothing more or less than a lawsuit jammed up his posterior as a result.

Beyond the slander, there is also the abuse of history and fact. Even in a town that prefers to uncritically  apply legendary director John Ford's famous dictum ("Print the legend"), Helgeland has crossed the line with a carelessness that pins the "callous" meter.

What is that slander? The bald, false, made-up-out-of-whole-cloth assertion that pitcher Fritz Ostermueller was a flaming racist who "beaned" Robinson early in the 1947 season.

As Helgeland portrays it, Pirates righthander Ostermueller (who was, in fact, left-handed) yelled "You don't belong" at Robinson before delivering a pitch that hit baseball's pioneer of integration in the head--an action that purportedly started an on-field brawl that was supposed to been a pivotal moment in his acceptance by his teammates on the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It's questionable scriptwriting--and odiously false history. As all credible historical accounts of the incident indicate, Ostermueller pitched a 12-hit shutout against the Dodgers that day (May 17, 1947). Robinson was hit on the left wrist in the first inning; there was no brawl, and there were no harsh words uttered before or after Robinson was hit.

Robinson wound up 2-for-4 in the game, and made the final out (a grounder to third) as Ostermueller completed his complete-game "whitewash."

Ostermueller's daughter, Sherill Duesterhaus, was incredibly gracious even as she endured the pain of seeing her father wrongly accused of actions he did not commit and values that he did not hold. "I can understand Hollywood making a good story, but not at the expense of someone's memory and legacy."

In a world that is already far too litigious, it's certainly counter-productive to suggest that Ms. Duesterhaus file a lawsuit against Helgeland, whose cavalier rewriting of history has been rewarded by filmgoers to the tune of $90 million in ticket sales.

But it's what he deserves. It would be interesting to see how he would mount a defense for such an astonishing act of character assassination.

Helgeland also plays fast and loose with the September "rematch" between Robinson and Ostermueller, where he's depicted as hitting a walk-off homer against him. That's hard to do when you are playing a road game. Robinson did hit a home run in that game, but it occurred when Jackie led off the top of the fourth inning, in what was to that point a scoreless tie.

The director also suggests that Ostermueller was "afraid" to pitch to Robinson, having walked him in a previous at-bat. The actual game log for September 17, 1947 shows that Jackie was walked intentionally in the seventh inning, after he'd already hit a homer and a double. He was given the free pass to set up a double play possibility, since pitcher Hal Gregg was at second base with one out.

The moment that never happened: Fritz Ostermueller (as portrayed by actor
Linc Hand, who's using the wrong hand...) pointing at Jackie Robinson before
throwing a pitch that hit him in the head. NEVER HAPPENED, FOLKS.
Of course, none of that is a "good Hollywood story." But the story of Jackie Robinson is compelling enough without these types of egregious distortions and outright lies.

(And, in fact, the Dodgers did not actually clinch the pennant that day. They only clinched a tie for the pennant. But the "double dosing" of Ostermueller was just too convenient for a seasoned Hollywood hack like Helgeland to resist.)

Helgeland should issue an apology to Fritz Ostermueller's daughter for his slander of her father. Failing that, he should be barred from making any more films. For all his talent, he has shown the ultimate in bad faith, particularly in the service of a progressive cause. He needs to make amends.

This is not the place for a complete analysis of 42--an excellent effort at that has already been undertaken by ESPN's Howard Bryant, who covers the film from the lens of history and how that has already been fissured into a series of lingering legends. It is the place to wonder why it was necessary to add character assassination to an already leaking stew of historical shortcuts--some "understandable" (as Ostermueller's daughter suggests), but others simply exasperating.

It's one thing to be historically inaccurate, however--but entirely another to go out of one's way to slander an innocent bystander. Barring a public apology, Helgeland should be banished from Hollywood.