Every Knee Shall Bend

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When I was younger, I was a sports nut. We had season tickets to the Phoenix Suns’ games from their second season in existence, 1969–70, until I was well into my 20s. I went to the very first regular season game the Suns ever played. All I remember about that night was that the other team had green uniforms and that the pages of the program smelled funny. At six, I didn’t pay much attention to the action on the court.

As I advanced through grade school, I came to love the game. We even showed up, when the home court was in the old Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum, while the state fair was going on and the whole place reeked of cow manure. The closest the Suns ever came to a title, in those early years, was in 1976, and I’m still inclined to think that the Celtics robbed us. It’s a vague feeling, probably not backed up by the facts, but fans in Western cities tended to feel that we weren’t getting a fair deal. The East Coast-based powers-that-be in the league and the media didn’t take us seriously, and treated our team as if it had broken some sort of a sacred rule by having dared to advance that far in the playoffs.

My childhood hero was Suns’ star forward-guard Dick Van Arsdale. He’s a gentleman through and through, and has always been gracious to his fans. I have about 50 of his autographs, and at least half a dozen of his identical twin brother, Tom, who played alongside him on the team in their final year as pros. In ’76, 13-year-old me wrote Dick a letter inviting him to our house for a postseason dinner. He actually took the time to send me a handwritten response (with all those autographs in my collection, I knew no secretary had penned it), thanking me for my kind offer but saying that his family was headed out of town for some much needed rest.

We even showed up, when the home court was in the old Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum, while the state fair was going on and the whole place reeked of cow manure.

The Suns’ sister franchise, the Phoenix Mercury, captivated my attention from Day One of the WNBA. And my all-time highlight as a sports fan will always be the Arizona Diamondbacks’ World Series victory over the mighty New York Yankees in the turbulent wake of 9/11. I still follow the fortunes of the baseball and basketball teams of my college alma mater, Grand Canyon University. But over the years, my enthusiasm for professional sports has waned considerably. It has turned, of late, into a hearty dislike.

I’m certainly not a knee-jerk hater of sports in general, as I believe my history makes clear. But I find it increasingly difficult to overlook the fact that there are always any number of teams complaining that their arenas or stadia are out-of-date and attempting to extort the taxpayers into building them new ones. And few of the players, these days, have the humility or grace of a Dick Van Arsdale, a Luis Gonzalez, or a Michele Timms. Far too many behave like spoiled brats, and some are downright criminal. Moreover, a growing number expect us not only to be interested in their political opinions, but to pay them ever higher salaries and lionize them as heroes for having aired them.

Take the current controversy over former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Yes — and do take it, please. For those who’ve been hiding under a rock on the dark side of the moon, last season he refused to stand for the national anthem before some games, choosing to kneel instead. He was protesting something having to do with slavery, police brutality, racism, or oppression in general — take your pick of which. In any case, the young man was grievously aggrieved, and the whole world was expected to care.

It's increasingly difficult to overlook the fact that there are always any number of teams attempting to extort taxpayers into building them new arenas.

He showed up at a press conference, supposedly to explain himself, in a Fidel Castro t-shirt and socks that mocked police officers as pigs. It was immediately apparent that we were supposed to care not only about the causes he espoused, but about him. Perhaps the reason it’s so difficult to figure out exactly what he’s been trying to say is that the message that drowns out any other has consistently been “Look at me!” Celebrities with high-profile opinions tend to have that effect on the public. Few of us remember what it is they want to tell us, because what we seem to be especially expected to notice is that they are saying it.

I think I’ve written somewhere before — maybe here — that professional sports are training Americans to be morons. In my own opinion, that is by far the worst strike against them. It isn’t only that the stars of the game try to manipulate us into supporting the causes and candidates they prefer. It’s that we come to see politics as spectator sports. The entire Republican-Democrat duopoly that keeps our nation’s doings in its iron grip is, indeed, modeled after a neverending game.

It’s all about who wins or loses. Fandom for the favored side is seldom based on any sort of rational thought. And the mega-rich who run the show from behind the scenes rake in endless boodle — at the taxpayers’ expense.

The entire Republican-Democrat duopoly that keeps our nation’s doings in its iron grip is modeled after a neverending game.

Now the overlords of the NFL are worried that, since the onset of the Kaepernick kerfuffle (now ramped up, for his own apparent political gain, by President Trump), attendance has declined. While this is terrible news for them, and for the crybaby players, it may actually be great news for We, the People. It shows where the power really lies — and how much of it we truly hold. It also proves that even in our increasingly socialized nation, the free market is still powerful enough to win the game.




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Let Us All Come to Worship at Olympia

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As the editor of a journal, I get lots of email advertising other journals. (Yeah — go figure.) I got some on August 19 from Commonweal, the liberal Catholic mag, puffing an article by E.J. Dionne, which starts with the following display of asininity:

Simone Manuel, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles will not be eligible to run for president until 2032, although Michael Phelps hits 35 years old in 2020. After watching these Olympians display so many traits we admire — persistence, discipline, grace, goal orientation, resilience, and inner strength — perhaps we should consider drafting one of them some day.

It is both a blessing and a curse that the Summer Olympics happen during the election year. The blessings are obvious. Especially in this campaign, it is a relief to watch a display of American talent that truly brings the country together.

My first thought was, “It’s odd to be reading this a day after learning what Ryan Lochte and his Olympian buddies did in Brazil.” They might have shown a kind of persistence and goal orientation (whatever that means), but I have some doubts about the rest of Dionne’s list of admirable qualities. The idea that because somebody is a good athlete he or she must be a wonderful human being, and a political genius to boot, is even more ridiculous than the notion that because somebody is a good artist or musician, he or she must have all the answers about everything else.

But the thing that left a nasty taste in my mouth was the nonsense about bringing the country together. Let’s get this straight. It’s not necessarily a good thing that a country comes together. It’s most likely to come together under the influence of fear or in an episode of mob behavior or at the bottom of a descent to the lowest common denominator. Anyone with a brain must have observed that millions of fans all cheering for the Chicago sports teams have done precisely nothing to bring the city together in any other respect or to solve any problem except the teams’ desire for profits, and the same can be said about any other audience in any other city.

“For God’s sake and for God’s sake,” as the lady says in A Portrait of the Artist, do we have to keep hearing nonsense like this?




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The Olympics and Liberty

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I’m often asked what makes a film “libertarian.” Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority? Many libertarian films do contain those features. But my favorites are those in which a protagonist achieves a goal or overcomes obstacles without turning to the government to fix things.

Two such films are in theaters now, and both are based on true stories about Olympic athletes who achieved their goals in spite of government interference, not because of government aid. Race tells the Jesse Owens story, and Eddie the Eagle tells the Michael Edwards story. Both are worth seeing.

Race is the perfect title for this film that focuses on both racing and racism. Owens was one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century. Historian Richard Crepeau (who spoke at FreedomFest last year) described the 1935 college track meet at Ann Arbor in which Owens, in the space of 45 minutes, set three world records and tied a fourth as “the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.” Nevertheless, Owens (Stephan James) is not welcome at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) intends to use “his” Olympics as a propaganda piece to highlight the physical superiority of the Aryan race, and he does not want any blacks or Jews to spoil his plan. He hires filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) to document the glorious event.

The film reveals the backstage negotiations between Olympic Committee representative Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and the German organizing committee at which Brundage insisted on assurances that Jews and blacks would be allowed to compete. Brundage’s insistence is somewhat hypocritical, considering the treatment Owens and other black athletes were enduring at home, but he was successful in forestalling a threatened American boycott of the Games.

What makes a film “libertarian”? Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority?

Owens faces similar pressure from the NAACP, as he is warned that he ought to boycott the Games to protest racism in Germany. Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order. This is as it should be. What good would it have done if Owens had stayed home to protest German policy? Would it have made any difference? Would anyone even have noticed? I felt the same way when President Carter made the opposite decision in 1980 and forced American athletes to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. What good did it do to destroy the dreams of hundreds of American athletes who had trained their whole lives to compete in a tournament that comes along only once every four years? Did it help anyone in Afghanistan? Did it hurt all those Russian athletes who took home more medals because the Americans weren’t there? I think not.

In the movie, Owens also faces the pressure of athletic celebrity, and Stephan James skillfully portrays the ambition and the temptations of a small-town boy chasing big-time dreams. He is anchored in his pursuits by his college coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) and his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton), who would become his wife and partner until the day he died in 1980. As with most sports films, the outcome of the contest is known from the beginning. The real story is how the hero gets there, and how he conducts himself along the way. Owens was a hero worthy of the title.

Eddie the Eagle tells the story of an Olympic hero of a different sort — one who is remembered for his tenacity rather than his innate skill. Michael Edwards (played by Taron Egerton as an adult and by brothers Tommy Costello, Jr. at 10 years old and Jack Costello at 15) simply dreams of being an Olympian; he doesn’t care what sport. His mother (Jo Hartley) nurtures that dream, giving him a special biscuit tin to hold his medals and praising his accomplishments, even if it’s just holding his breath for 58 seconds. Ironically, Eddie is motivated by a picture of Jesse Owens in a book about the Olympics. By contrast, Eddie’s father (Keith Allen) is a pragmatist, encouraging Eddie to give up his silly dreams and become a plasterer like him. His father isn’t a bad man; he just wants to protect his son from disappointment and financial waste. Fortunately for Eddie, he has the kind of optimistic personality that simply doesn’t hear criticism.

Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order.

Eddie settles on skiing as his sport and manages to qualify for the British Olympic team, but the Committee cuts him because he “isn’t Olympic material.” Read: you don’t dress well or look right and you’re rather clumsy. Undaunted, Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping. If he can compete in an international event and land on his feet, he can qualify for the Calgary Olympics. This is the same year that the Jamaican bobsled team slipped through the same loophole — a loophole that was quickly closed before the following season. Now athletes must compete internationally and place in the top 30% of finishers in order to qualify. But in 1988, if you could find a sport that few people in your country competed in, you could literally “make the team.”

With his father’s van and his mother’s savings, Eddie takes off for the training slopes in Germany. There he tackles the jumps, crashes on his landings, and tackles the jumps again. When he lands the 15-meter jump successfully, he moves on to the 40 and the 70, crashing more than he lands. Low camera angles during the jumps create the sensation of height and speed, providing a rush of adrenaline for the audience. Frequent shots of Eddie tumbling after a crash emphasize just how risky this beautiful sport is. We admire Eddie’s persistence, even as we cringe at his crashes. He believes in himself, no matter what.

Eventually he meets up with Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a chain-smoking, hard-drinking slope groomer who looks incredibly lean and buff for an alcoholic. Peary turns out to be a former ski jumper who lost his chance for Olympic glory by not taking his training seriously. This, of course, sets us up for the perfect sports metaphor movie: unskilled amateur with indomitable heart meets innately talented athlete who threw it all away, and both find redemption while training for the Games.

Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping.

It’s a great story about overcoming obstacles, sticking with a goal, and ignoring the naysayers. It demonstrates the power of a mother’s encouragement, and the possibility that even a poor, farsighted boy from a working-class neighborhood can achieve his dreams — if he doesn’t kill himself practicing for it.

All this allows us to forgive the fact that the movie mostly isn’t true. Yes, Michael Edwards did compete in the Calgary Olympics. He did set a British record for ski-jumping, despite coming in dead last in both events, simply because, as the only British jumper, his was the only British record. His exuberance and joy just for participating in the Olympics led to his being the only individual athlete referred to specifically in the closing speech that year (“some of us even soared like an eagle”). But Bronson Peary never existed, and Michael Edwards actually trained with US coaches at Lake Placid, albeit with limited funds that caused him to use ill-fitting equipment. But that wouldn’t have given us such a feel-good story.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Race," directed by Stephen Hopkins. Forecast Pictures, 2016, 134 minutes; and "Eddie the Eagle," directed by Dexter Fletcher. Pinewood Studios, 2016, 106 minutes.



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Is He Really She?

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So Bruce Jenner has “always felt like a woman” inside, and ESPN is giving him their “Courage” award for coming out in such a public way. I know you’ve seen his photograph on the cover of Vanity Fair, so fetching with his newly-carved facial structure, his come-hither hair extensions, his pumped-up breasts, and his manly hands and man-parts discreetly hidden behind his back and under his crotch.

“I’ve always felt like a woman.” What exactly does that mean? Does he mean “I know what it feels like to nurture a child and cook a meal and clean a house and bat my eyelashes at a man”? If so — shame on him. That is not what it means to be a woman. And shame on all the pundits and journalists who are falling all over themselves to praise him for thinking that’s what it means, or for letting him get away with making that statement without challenging him to explain what it means.

So Bruce Jenner is the “ideal proportion” for a woman, because he has a man’s skeleton, and thus narrow hips?

Did Jenner feel like a woman in the 1960s when he was training on the boys’ well-funded high school track team, while the girls spent most of their time dressing and showering for P.E. with perhaps 20 minutes spent on the field? Did he feel like a woman during his Olympic glory days, when men’s track and field events were shown during prime time, and women’s track and field events were mentioned in the middle of the sports page somewhere? Did he spend 35 years finding blood in his underwear once a month, and dealing with all the trauma and embarrassment that goes with that? Does he know how it feels to realize your tampon is leaking and you’re sitting down and there is no way to escape without people watching you walk out of the room? How dare he say he knows how it feels to be a woman, after spending 65 years as a man.

If he means, “I know what it feels like to want to put on a dress and heels and makeup” — well, fine. You don’t have to be a woman to do that. Nor do I have to be a man to put on a tuxedo or a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Clothes do not make the man — or the woman. Moreover, I resent Jessica Diehl, who clothed Jenner for the Vanity Fair photo shoot, gushing, “Caitlyn’s proportions are fashion proportions, really. She’s tall, slim, narrow hipped: kind of ideal to dress” (New York Times, June 4, 2015). So Bruce Jenner is the “ideal proportion” for a woman, because he has a man’s skeleton, and thus narrow hips? My wide hips are perfectly proportioned for a real woman. I earned my hips through eight pregnancies, five births, and three miscarriages. Go through that, Bruce Jenner, and then tell me you know how it feels to be a woman. Even my husband doesn’t know how it felt to lose those three babies. Not from a woman’s perspective.

And let’s talk about Jenner’s supposed transformation. He surgically shaped his facial structure, pumped up his breasts with silicone and hormone therapy, and layered on a pound of makeup. But he kept his penis. What kind of woman has a penis? How does Jenner’s lack of commitment and confidence in his choice qualify him for a Courage award?

Bruce Jenner is welcome to mutilate his body any way he wants to, but please don’t make him a role model, and please don’t call him a woman. He can change his face, change his name, and wear all the dresses he wants. He can call himself transgendered. He can change his name to Caitlyn. But he can’t get rid of that Y chromosome. And he will never know what it feels like to be a woman.




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And the Winner Is — The Story!

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McFarland USA is not a great movie, but it is a great story. The pacing is slow, and at 129 minutes, the picture is justtoo long. The acting is average, and the casting, with men as old as 30 playing characters under 16, is often jarring, especially when a 30-year-old actor is romancing a 15-year-old girl. But the story, about a rag-tag cross-country team of mostly immigrant students who make it to the California state championships, grabs your heart midway through and keeps you engaged till the end.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school football coach who has lost three teaching positions in three different states because of his inability to control his temper. He ends up in McFarland, an agricultural community of immigrant farmworkers and one of the poorest communities in California, because it is virtually at the end of the road. He wants nothing more than to put in his time while finding a better position somewhere else. When a local merchant recommends that he plant a tree in his yard that will provide shade in five years, White responds, “I won’t be here that long.”

They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies.

Then he notices some students running from school to their homes or work in the fields after school, and he realizes that they have what it takes to succeed in cross country. “No one can endure pain the way you can,” he reminds the team during a pre-tournament pep talk. “No one else out there gets up at 4 a.m. to work in the fields and then goes to school and then to practice. No one else can endure heat and thirst the way you can. Don’t let them intimidate you.” Coach White knows the pain they are able to endure, because he has joined them in the fields to pick cabbage, and it was the most physically demanding work he has ever done. He admires these young men on his team who are often marginalized and face ridicule and derision when they compete at other schools.

According to interviews, the real Jim White did not move from job to job until he hit rock bottom in McFarland; he chose to teach at McFarland High School because he wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and he figured a small school would be the best place to do that. It was his first and only teaching job, and he definitely succeeded in his goal of making a difference. All of his original team members went to college or the military and went back to McFarland and became leaders in the community. One did some time in prison, but returned to work in McFarland after serving his sentence. The pattern has continued with subsequent team members, many of whom have graduated from college and found employment serving communities like theirs.

That’s why I said that McFarland USA is a great story, even if it isn’t a great movie. These boys and their families work hard, produce much, and pay their own way. They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies. But they do it so their children can have a better life. Seeing the actual men striding alongside the actors who portray them during the closing credits is one of the best moments in the film.


Editor's Note: Review of "McFarland USA," directed by Niki Caro. Disney Studios, 2015, 129 minutes.



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Wrestling with Reality

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I’m well aware of the old adage, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” so I approach films that proclaim themselves to be “based on a true story” with a healthy dose of skepticism. In the case of Foxcatcher, nominated this week for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor, a phrase used tongue-in-cheek by last year’s American Hustle is more a propros: “A part of this actually happened.”

Some of what we see in Foxcatcher is true: brothers Mark and David Schultz (played in the film by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) actually did both win gold medals for wrestling in the 1984 Olympics (in different weight divisions). David did find success as a coach and trainer post-Olympics, while Mark struggled financially (wrestlers aren’t the most marketable athletes for selling toothpaste and breakfast cereal, even when they have gold medals; as one character sniffs in the film, “Wrestling is so low”). Wealthy chemical heir John du Pont (played by Steve Carell) did fancy himself a wrestling coach and did build a state-of-the art wrestling facility on his farm called Foxcatcher. Both Schultz brothers did work as coaches and trainers for du Pont’s team, although never at the same time. From what I can discern, eyewitnesses say that the shocking ending of the film is quite accurate in terms of what happened, but not necessarily in terms of why it happened. New motives have been manufactured for this tale.

However, the middle of the film “doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” and the story is admittedly much more interesting with the two brothers working at Foxcatcher together, where they display a family dynamic — two brothers abandoned as toddlers by their father (also not true) — that resonates almost voyeuristically with viewers, especially as it is juxtaposed against the bizarre and painful filial dynamic between du Pont and his cold and haughty mother (Vanessa Redgrave) as portrayed — that is, fictionalized — in the film.

When Carell's du Pont smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill.

This story focuses on loneliness: the loneliness of gold medalist Mark Schultz as he gives talks to middle schoolers for 20 bucks a pop and eats ramen noodles for dinner because they are filling and can be purchased 10 for a dollar; the loneliness of John du Pont, who has everything money can buy — even friends and medals — but relates to his own mother from a distance; and the loneliness of a mother who cannot accept or appreciate her son and his choices. Mark is looking for a father figure, and du Pont is looking for someone to parent. They fall into these roles through a pathetic sense of desperation.

Only David seems to have a grasp on reality. Married to a smart and sassy wife (Sienna Miller) with two adorable children, he doesn’t need the money or the glory du Pont dangles in front of him. But he does need to protect his brother, and that’s what (in the film) lures him to Foxcatcher. The relationship between these two brothers is deep, intimate, and exclusive, and the two actors fall into their roles with a vulnerability seldom seen on screen between men. In an early scene they prepare for a training session in an elegant, graceful warmup dance. They nuzzle each other like animals testing each other’s strength. Neck-to-neck they press into each other’s shoulders, and then roll across to face each other from the other direction, hands on the other’s back or ribcage, becoming increasingly aggressive as they warm for the match.

Into this relationship comes John du Pont, trying to buy a team, a medal, and a sense of importance. Steve Carell, known for his bumbling comedic roles in TV’s The Office and such movies asGet Smart and Date Night, is about as unlikely a casting decision as one could imagine for the crazed, withdrawn du Pont. But director Bennett Miller could see beyond the comedic roles that have marked Carell’s career. “I think all comedians are dark,” Miller said after casting Carell, and indeed Carell plays du Pont with a reserved aggression that never breaks character. He peers down his large (prosthetic) nose with eyes that are distant and unreadable. When he smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill. The real Mark Schultz has said of the real du Pont, “Everything about him was weird, from the dyed red Ronald McDonald hair with layers of dandruff in the roots to his dark yellow teeth, caked with food.” Carell captures this benign yet dangerous person perfectly.

How could someone so disgusting, unlikeable, and antisocial secure a corner for himself as a trainer and a sponsor for USA Wrestling? If the film is to be believed (and remember, it’s “based on a true story”), you can buy just about anything in this world with money. Nonprofit organizations purport to put their cause first, but in reality, the buyer is always right — and in the nonprofit world, the buyer is the one donating the money. It’s not a happy system, but until wrestlers and artists and others who enjoy esoteric pursuits can find a way to sell their efforts directly to the consumers, it’s the only one we have.


Editor's Note: Review of "Foxcatcher," directed by Bennett Miller. Annapurna Pictures, 2014, 129 minutes.



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The Broken and the Unbroken

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Despite our justifiable concerns regarding domestic surveillance (see my review of Citizenfour), electronic surveillance has served an important purpose during war time. Intercept the enemy’s plan of attack, and you can prevent that attack. During World War II, hundreds of Allied “ears” listened in on Axis radio communications, hoping to decode the embedded messages in time to thwart the Nazis’ plans.

However, this became nearly impossible after the Nazis developed a complex message-scrambling machine called Enigma. A group of genius linguists, logicians, and mathematicians was recruited to break the Enigma code, but the machine was so complex that it could generate an estimated 159 x 1018 possible codes. Making the task even more formidable was the fact that the code changed at midnight every day, giving the team approximately 18 hours from the time the first message was intercepted in the morning until they had to start over, searching for a completely new code. It would be easier for the miller’s daughter to spin flax into gold than for these geniuses to uncover the Enigma code. Meanwhile, soldiers and civilians were dying minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Cracking the code could potentially end the war sooner and save hundreds of thousands of lives. They had to keep trying. Their story is told in an outstanding new film called The Imitation Game.

In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle.

The unlikely hero of our story is Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), a socially inept, possibly autistic mathematical genius who can break traditional codes in a matter of minutes but can’t interpret ordinary social codes created through facial gestures and tone of voice. “People never say what they really mean,” Turing complains quizzically, “and you’re just supposed to know.” For example, at one point another decoder says, “We’re getting lunch,” and Turing doesn’t respond. What the decoder meant, of course, was “Do you want to come with us?” But Turing can’t crack this simple code on his own.

Turing realizes the folly of trying to break the Nazis’ code in traditional ways; it would take 20 million years to go through all the possibilities, and they have 18 hours a day. So he turns his efforts toward building a machine that can run through all the possibilities automatically, in milliseconds. The other decoders resent Turing’s obsession with the machine, because it takes him away from their traditional decoding. One member of the team, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) believes in him. Clarke is a bit of a misfit herself, as she is the only woman on the team, and math is considered a “manly” pursuit. She teaches Turing how to play the social game that will give him the time and support needed to develop his “imitation game” — the computer.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Turing is spot on. Admittedly, he has experience with characters who are emotionally detached — he played, for example, Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), the title character in the TV series Sherlock (2010), and the forlorn boy whose best friend is a horse in War Horse (2011). In The Imitation Game you notice Cumberbatch’s brilliance in his lack of brilliance — his lack of social sparkle. While the other characters lean into each other, eyes aglow, faces expressing sorrow or concern or cheerfulness as they speak, Turing’s face is blank. His eyes focus just in front of the person to whom he is speaking; his face remains placid, his forehead unfurled. He is different, and because he is different he is unliked. We see this especially in flashbacks to his school experience, where all but one of the boys treat him cruelly. He is used to it, but he doesn’t like it. And he struggles to break that social code.

Turing developed his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think.

But there is more to Turing’s “imitation game” than the computer he longs to build. He is hiding a secret that, if discovered, could destroy his career and land him in jail — or worse, as it turns out. Winston Churchill heralded him as the greatest hero of World War II — responsible for ending the war two years early and saving hundreds of thousands of lives — yet because of this secret in his personal life he was arrested, convicted, and punished in the cruelest and most shameful way. For as long as he could, Turing lived an imitation life, hiding his true self and pretending to be someone he was not.

Turing’s story is an important one. He was a genius and a hero, yet he was shunned, bullied, and punished simply for being different, first by his schoolmates, then by his decoding team, and finally by the government he helped to save. Through all of this Turing continued to develop his “imitation intelligence” machine into a device that not only ended the war but has changed the way you and I create, communicate, live, and think. As Joan Clarke says, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do things no one could imagine.” Understanding and assimilating this truth makes this film well worth watching.

Another film set in World War II also focuses on an unlikely hero. In this case his actions did not affect the outcome of the war, but his endurance, strength, and faith became an example to many who heard or read his story. Unbroken is based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand about Louis Zamperini, who spent 45 days in a life raft after his plane crashed at sea and then spent the final two years of the war in a Japanese prison camp. His ability to survive both experiences and buoy the courage of his fellow sufferers is an inspiring story of individual heroism.

Zamperini did not start out as a typical hero. He was a hooligan — often in trouble with the law for petty theft and just as likely to end up in a local prison as a Japanese one. The son of Italian immigrants, he, too, was bullied for being different. The local sheriff encouraged him to turn his swiftness at running from the cops to a more productive pursuit, and he joined the high school track team, eventually competing in the Berlin Olympics. Had the war not started, he would likely have gone to Tokyo as an Olympic competitor rather than a prisoner of war. These early experiences helped Zamperini develop survival instincts and endurance that served him well during his those brutal two years.

The film opens with a thrilling dogfight as Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) and his flight crew ward off incoming flak in order to drop bombs on a Japanese target. After some expositional flashbacks to his childhood, it continues with the harrowing crash into the sea and Zamperini’s heroic leadership as he kept the three survivors motivated to stay alive in the life raft for an astounding 45 days. These scenes are the best in the film, capturing the teamwork, loyalty, and danger that are integral to the story.

Zamperini and his flight mates are rescued from certain death at sea, only to land in worse conditions within a Japanese prison camp. There they are isolated, starved, beaten, and threatened with beheading. Pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson) is pitifully emaciated, and his ribs and hipbones stick out as though they could poke right through his tissue-paper skin. (Gleeson lost so much weight for the role that even his contact lenses wouldn’t fit.)

As told by Jolie and the Coens, the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import.

Camp Commander Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) takes a particular dislike to Zamperini, shown by the almost psychotic cunning in his eyes. He is often filmed over the shoulders of an American soldier, staring menacingly into the camera, which gives the audience the eerie sensation of standing within the line of POWs. The actor, composer, and guitarist, known professionally in Japan as Miyavi, has a strangely androgynous look that adds to the unsettling effect of his character. First time director Angelina Jolie has a good eye for composition throughout the film (or perhaps the credit should go to seasoned cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is known for such outstanding films as Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, Prisoners, A Beautiful Mind, andTrue Grit [2010]).

Unbroken is a good film, but it is not a great film, and it certainly does not live up to the quality of the book on which it is based (but then, few films ever do). The audience suffers the torment of the main character, and we admire his triumphant victory over horrifying circumstances — his ability to take whatever unfair treatment is meted out to him. Jack O’Connell deserves the accolades he has been receiving as most promising new performer. But the film falls strangely flat, especially in comparison to The Imitation Game. The story has no central conflict outside of the beatings and torture, giving it an oddly plodding pace.

Moreover, as told by Jolie and the Coens (who wrote the screenplay), the story is an individual’s journey, just as track is an individual’s sport. It lacks the drama of universal conflict or import, and stops short of telling the lasting impact his experience had on others. While in the lifeboat, Zamperini made a vow to devote his life to God if he survived the experience, and he did — Zamperini joined Billy Graham’s crusade and told his inspirational story for many years as a way of encouraging people to face obstacles with courage and patience.

Unbroken had all the ingredients of an enduring film — outstanding, dedicated cast; seasoned, talented cinematographer; award-winning screenwriters; beautifully written book; and a heroic, uncompromising central character. It’s good. But it’s broken.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Imitation Game," directed by Morten Tyldum. Weinstein Company, 2014, 114 minutes; and "Unbroken," directed by Angelina Jolie. Universal Pictures, 2014, 137 minutes.



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Confessions of a Sports Fanatic

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As a libertarian, and a nonfollower of sports, I often wonder why people get deeply involved in America's great community project of watching games, cheering for teams, keeping track of trades, remembering statistics, and all the rest of it. To be honest, I simply don't understand why anyone would follow sports. So I asked a libertarian sports fan, Russell Hasan, to explain it to me. Here's what he said. See what you think.

— Stephen Cox

Ancient Greece held the Olympics. In ancient Rome the Emperor held gladiator games at the Coliseum. In modern America we have the Super Bowl. Given the broad fan base of sports, from baseball and football in the USA to soccer in Europe and South America, to rugby and cricket in England, Australia, and Asia, there must be something about sports that appeals to a deep and fundamental need in human nature.

Why do people like sports? The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel. Being a fanatical fan of the New York Yankees, and also following the New York Giants football team closely, does several things for me. I’ll list them.

1. Enjoyment. Watching sports is fun. If you don’t enjoy watching sports, then you are never going to be an avid sports fan (unless you play sports, which is a different article altogether). I like watching baseball and football, so it is natural for me to be a sports fan. Having been born and raised in New York, I root for the Yankees and the Giants. Sports gives me something to do when I am bored. There are 162 games during the baseball regular season, and more games when the Yankees make the playoffs. The Giants play 16 games in the football regular season. When you enjoy watching sports on TV, there is always something to watch. Factor in parties to see a game or seeing a game at a sports bar, and one can build an entire life out of watching the Yankees.

2. Tension. But why do I enjoy watching my Yankees play against another team, especially against the accursed, vile, rotten, Red Sox (their division rival)? Well, if you don’t see what I see then this might be like describing music to a deaf person, but something articulable can be stated about what it is like for a sports fan to see a game. I would describe a good game as “tension, adrenaline, excitement, and suspense.” Baseball and football are designed so that the games are usually a close contest between the two teams. A few crucial plays can determine who wins. When the Yankees are ahead by one run, and a fly ball goes to the outfield, I root for the Yankees outfielder to catch it. He does so 99% of the time, but there is a little sting of excitement to see the ball shoot over to him, and then a small but pleasurable sigh of relief when the baseball is caught.

The appeal of sports is not complicated, so I think I can explain it, although it reduces to basic emotions that you either feel or do not feel.

When I root for a team it means I want them to win, so I am happy when my team scores. I am elated when the Yankees win, and I feel horrible when they lose. I enjoy the adrenaline rush of being in a nerve-wracking high-stress situation when my team is in a key situation in a close game. To feel that, and then to see my team make a play and win the game, is thrilling.

3. Personality. So I enjoy games because I get to see my team win and the other team lose. But why am I a fan of the Yankees and Giants particularly? Each sports team has its own personality, which can only be seen when you follow the sport as closely as I do. For example, the Yankees are the equivalent of a rich successful businessman who dominates his competition and buys mansions and yachts, while the Red Sox are the equivalent of lovable loser underdogs who have recently changed their bad luck and become winners after decades of being horrible. The Mets (and also the basketball team the New York Knicks) are the pathetic loser that you feel sorry for and root for because of a deep, committed passion to be there for them no matter what, even though they constantly lose despite having every opportunity to win. It’s as if the Mets were your alcoholic brother who puked on your bathroom floor on a regular basis.

In football, the New York Giants’ personality is defined by their quarterback, Eli Manning, who once stood in the shadow of his more successful brother Peyton but later emerged and developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the game, crowned by two victories over the Patriots in the Super Bowl, victories that gave New York bragging rights in the perpetual New York vs. Boston sports feud. That sort of success story can be found at some point in the history of most teams. The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers. The personality of a team comes from its players and its fans, but it grows into a spirit that surrounds the team; and team personality is a great basis upon which to choose whom to root for. In the 2014 Super Bowl, the personality of the two teams is easy to see: the Broncos are Peyton Manning’s team as he fights to be recognized as the greatest football player of his era, while the Seahawks seek to give Seattle sports fans their first championship in a major American sport and reward Seattle’s fan base, which is known as the “Twelfth Man” because it is so loud that it’s like another member of the 11-man Seattle defense.

4. Regional Pride. Sports teams bring together a city or region and provide a bonding experience. The Yankees and Mets give New Yorkers something to talk about. I have had experiences at the dentist and the grocery store in which someone saw my Yankees cap and I had an interesting talk with a total stranger. In ways like this, sports gives a community something to discuss, something in common. Each city and region has a team that it is passionate about. New York has the Yankees and Mets, Boston has the Red Sox, Dallas has the Cowboys, Seattle has the Seahawks. These teams give regional identity and cultural flavor to an area, and this is good for the community.

The flavor of the Yankees dates back to the trade for Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, which trade made the Yankees and the Sox what they are: the Yankees became winners and the Sox became lovable losers.

5. Discussion. As I mentioned, sports give people something to talk about. Every day of the year, I suspect there are a multitude of conversations about sports, and in the absence of sports these would be mere awkward silences between people who have nothing to talk about. There are millions of Yankees fans across America, and if I need to chat up any of them, I immediately have something that provides content for a friendly conversation. I can talk about the recent Yankees seasons for hours, and make intelligent observations about the team. I can talk about the decline of pitcher C.C. Sabathia’s arm strength, the ineptness of general manager Brian Cashman’s minor league talent scouting system, Robinson Cano’s greed, Babe Ruth’s stats (interesting fact: Babe Ruth has some of the best stats as a pitcher in baseball history, despite being better known for hitting over 700 home runs), and I could pull a dozen other conversation topics out of my Yankees hat. People need something to discuss when making friendly small talk, and sports is an easy, fun, enjoyable topic for them to discuss. I have found this to be true even among libertarians; for example, the famous Objectivist philosopher Chris Matthew Sciabarra is as avid a New York Yankees fan as I am.

6. Bonding. Sports brings friends together, and it brings families together when they share the same favorite team. Watching a baseball game together, or playing baseball in the backyard of your house, is a common father-son bonding experience. In my own case, if not for the fact that I and my mother and father are all Yankees fans, I would have very little in common with my parents, neither of whom are lawyers and both of whom are liberal Democrats.

7. Achievement. Sports, particularly baseball and football but also tennis, soccer, hockey, basketball, and most other sports, are almost unbelievably difficult for the athletes to play. Coaches and players require a chessmaster-like grasp of strategy, especially at the quarterback position in football. The quarterback needs to identify the defense’s scheme in about three seconds and find the right hole through which to throw the football. Major League pitchers need to be smart in deciding which pitch to throw to fool the batter. Intelligence is necessary. But athletic prowess is obviously also needed, and today’s professional athletes have almost unbelievable muscles. Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods. It is fun to watch people be good at something very difficult and challenging.

Also, a lot of success in sports is psychological. As Yogi Berra remarked: “Ninety percent of baseball is half mental.” To me, it is motivating and inspirational to watch the players on the team that is losing cope with the challenge of a deficit in the score and overcome their problems for a come-from-behind win. Both times the Giants beat the Patriots in recent Super Bowls, the Giants were the underdog and rallied to defeat a New England team that had more talent and was supposed to win. Stories like that are heartwarming. I was ecstatic when the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, and especially the second time they did it, when at the end of the game the Giants defense made a play against New England quarterback Tom Brady, who is probably the single most dangerous player in the NFL.

Some professional football players can lift a refrigerator, while there are baseball players who look like statues of the Greek gods.

Why do I like sports? I like sports because I enjoy watching the Yankees and Giants play. Why do I like watching them? Because it is fun to root for the home team. Why do I root for them? Because I am a Yankees fan and a Giants fan. Why am I a fan? I guess it really all reduces to a personal decision about how you choose to express yourself and what sort of personality you want to create for yourself as a human being, and what you enjoy in life. If I wanted, I could be a “foodie,” obsessed with sushi and sashimi. Then I would be writing about Japanese food instead of sports. But that isn’t who I am. Who I am is a New York Yankees fan and a New York Giants fan. And a lot of other Americans feel the way I do.




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Football? Why?

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Me? I like tennis, a much more gentle and gentlemanly sport than the current favorite, football. Knocking people down takes little skill. Pounding a “down the line” passing shot that just ticks the line takes super hand-eye coordination. Notice that in football the home team fans are encouraged to hoot and scream like the lynch mob in front of the jailhouse, to drown out the quarterback’s signals. Contrast that with the silent courtesy given to the server even if you’ve got 50 bucks riding on the match against him.

So — a brief note on college football. I used to be a fan. (And the origin of that word, by the way, is not “fanatic,” but “fancier.” People arefanciers of the University of Alabama.) I used to enjoy the game, although I never saw a defensive tackle turn to the ref, shed a tear, and mumble, “I held No. 33.” But I’ve seen McEnroe overrule the ump: “No, his ball was in.”

Then I realized that while to me football is entertainment, to students it’s a distraction and corruption. Colleges are institutions supposedly dedicated to the education and maturation of youth. I assume that’s the wellspring of their nonprofit status. But football, in its current form, downplays sportsmanship. It recruits — in most cases — large, fast, violent young men who specialize in using their large, fast, violent bodies to knock down and inflict serious injury on opponents. This is not exactly a lesson in sportsmanship or human relationships. Our colleges accept this anomaly in their mission because a stultified public allows it. And in many cases a gang of alumni — who evidently got a lousy education — sponsor it. The G-d of mammon — not learning — reigns. The lure of reinforced endowments and bulging bank accounts is irresistible. Who said that colleges’ nonprofit status carries over to sports and other athletic activities? A courtroom full of lawyers could debate that for a semester or two.

Coaches make millions — much of it from my taxpayer pocket. It should be an optional item on my tax form. And after all, it seems only fair that if the school makes a profit, I should get a proportionate refund.

But money is not the main issue. (Most schools lose money on their athletic programs.) It’s the disproportionate emphasis on sports, which might involve 1 to 2% of the student body, versus the rest, who are purchasing the school’s educational products. If I’m going to be a drunken spendthrift with institutional money (and remember, nobody spends your money like it’s their own), I’d rather pay two million to the head of the engineering department than two million to the football coach.

Which skill is more important? Creating a bridge, a new concept of combustion engines, a new source of energy — or whacking an anonymous opponent, which sounds a lot like modern warfare? And don’t think that the coach tears up and shouts at the defensive tackle who breaks the leg of an enemy quarterback, “Oh, dear, you broke his leg. His incompetent backup will have to finish the game. I so wanted to go against their first team.” Such lines are never spoken on the gridiron battlefield. Sportsmanship is a rare commodity. And winning, as misspoken by some coaches, isn’t everything. You learn from losing, too. And life is full of losing as well as winning.

I only scratch the surface. But you get the idea. Why are colleges in the entertainment business? Certainly not for the benefit of their primary customers. It’s as though the municipal fire department held courses in arson, on the side.




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Home Run

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When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Congress adopted the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery and involuntary servitude were officially ended in the United States. But racism and segregation were far from over. In fact, relations between blacks and whites remained so tense that during the ensuing century the US sanctioned a number of "Jim Crow" laws mandating segregation under the "separate but equal" interpretation.

Laws can mandate actions, but they cannot mandate public opinion. It took the free market, in the form of "America's favorite pastime," to start ending Jim Crow.

Baseball was America's most popular sport during most of the 20th century. Whites played it. Blacks played it. Women played it. But they didn't play it together. Early segregation was a form of protectionism. African-American players, such as Bud Fowler and Moses "Fleetwood" Walker, played on integrated teams in the 1880s, but they were so good that white players began to feel threatened that they would lose their positions and their jobs. "Whites Only" signs began to appear in locker rooms.

Soon two different leagues were formed. African American fans would often attend MLB games (sitting in the "Colored" section, of course) but with very few exceptions, whites would not attend NLB games. Consequently they seldom saw such baseball greats as Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays, who played in the Negro League.

They might have stayed there, too, unnoticed by the mainstream history books, if it weren't for Wesley Branch Rickey and the free market. Rickey was owner and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wanted to win the World Series, and that meant hiring the best players in baseball. He also wanted to fill the seats at Ebbets Field, and that meant expanding the appeal for African-American fans. Rickey decided it was time to integrate Major League Baseball, and he was just the man to do it: a thick-skinned, cigar-smoking Methodist named after John Wesley himself.

The story of how Branch Rickey integrated major league sports is told in an outstanding new film called 42, Jackie Robinson's number for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the only number that has been permanently retired by all of baseball in honor of his courage and grit. With strong actors in both supporting and leading roles and a quotable script that tells the story with honesty and unfeigned respect, it is a film that should not be missed.

Rickey (Harrison Ford) is the quintessential libertarian hero. He wants to right a wrong he committed as a coach at Wesleyan University when he "didn't do enough for a fine black pitcher." But most of all, Rickey is motivated by profit and success. He wants to sell tickets, and he wants a World Series pennant. "Dollars aren't black or white," he says to his critics; "they're green." To accomplish both the win and the ticket sales, he hires the first African-American Major League baseball player. Rickey knows it won't be easy. By wooing black audiences, he may lose the existing white fans. One of his advisors warns, "There's no law against hiring a Negro player, but there's a code. Break that code, and you'll pay for it." But Rickey believes he can persuade people to change their opinions simply by giving them a great show. And public opinion would change laws.

Choosing the right player was essential to the success of his plan. He couldn't have a hothead. In their initial meeting, Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) asks Rickey, "You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?" and Rickey responds, "I want a player who has the guts not to fight back." Robinson would have to endure namecalling, physical threats, beanballs, bad calls, and more. His teammates would have to try to overcome their own prejudices, some without success.

Robinson was no pushover. Before becoming a Dodger he refused to acquiesce to Jim Crow laws. He played in UCLA's integrated team. As a member of the US military he was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. In the film, when he is not allowed to use a gas station's toilet while his Negro league baseball team stops for gas, he says to the attendant, "Then take that hose out of the tank and we'll get our 99 gallons of gas somewhere else." The attendant lets them use the toilet, and they buy the gas. Dollars aren't black or white; they're green.

Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he knew the power of the free market.

It isn't easy for Robinson to hold his tongue and his temper. He has to endure degradation from all sides. One of the worst offenders is Phillies’ coach Ben Chapman, who shouts racial slurs whenever Robinson comes up to bat. Chapman defends his actions by saying, "Hey, it ain't nothing. We call DiMaggio a wop. We call Hank Greenberg a kike," as though that makes it right. Rickey encourages Robinson to remain strong. "You can't meet the enemy on his own low ground," he says when the desire to fight back is almost overwhelming.

But there are moments to make one proud as well. After a cop forces Robinson off a southern baseball field for mixing with whites, saying, "That's our law here, and I'm going to enforce it," a local man approaches Robinson looking like nothing so much as a redneck racist. But he smiles shyly and says, "If a man's got the goods, he deserves a chance. I'm pulling for you. A lot of us are." Watching the tide of public opinion slowly turn produces a profound cathartic effect throughout the film.

The physical and emotional struggle Robinson endures is mitigated not only by Rickey, who stands by him like a father, but also by his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), who soothes and uplifts him throughout the film.42 is as much a love story as it is a sports story.

Some of the best moments in the film occur simply when Robinson plays baseball. He had a loose, bouncing way of moving on the field. His arms seemed to stretch an extra foot when he dove for a ball, and he danced between the bases as he threatened to steal. His smile was magical. Relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman slips into that role with an ease as natural as the ballplayer he portrays. Waiting about a mile off base while the pitcher prepares for his windup, his fingers twinkle and dance and he bounces low in his knees, just daring the pitcher to throw him out. His relaxed smile is charming and disarming, confirming Rickey's decision that Robinson was the right man for the right time. As Mordecai said of Esther, who risked her life for the lives of the Jewish people, "Who knows but that you were born for such a time as this?" Robinson seems to have been born for his time.

Branch Rickey was born for such a time as well. He knew that laws can control actions, but they can't force people to overcome their prejudices. (Hell, it was laws and political activism that created segregation in the first place!) But he knew the power of the free market. Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he was certain that once he proved black players would make baseball better, other teams would have to follow. To some extent the worries of those early baseball players who rejected Bud Fowler and Moses Walker were warranted. Major league sports are dominated by minority players today. But the game is enriched because of it. And America is richer too.


Editor's Note: Review of "42," directed by Brian Helgeland. Warner Brothers, 2013, 128 minutes.



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