42 (United States, 2013)April 11, 2013
42 tells the (mostly) true tale of how Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) broke the Major League color barrier in 1947, becoming the first black player to appear in a Major League baseball game since 1884. Robinson's story is inspirational, and there are times when Brian Helgeland's conventional narrative evokes powerful emotions. Unfortunately, the generic bio-pic structure of 42 prevents it from ever becoming something great. The film takes no chances and does nothing bold. It's a competent chronicle of Robinson's life from 1945 through 1947 but it doesn't do much more than a documentary could do. Instead of being the definitive cinematic interpretation of Robinson's turbulent clash with baseball's deeply embedded culture of segregation, it offers a rote account of events. It's worth seeing because the film is competently presented and the story is inherently important, but I couldn't help be disappointed that the result wasn't more fresh or visionary.
42 tells of Robinson's year in the minors and his first campaign with the Brooklyn Dodgers. While not doing an especially good job of capturing Robinson's personality - he's more of an icon than a fully developed character - it effectively realizes the wall of racially-motivated resistance that greeted him upon his inauguration as a player in what was a white man's game. When Dodgers' GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) tells Robinson "I want a player with the guts not to fight back," we understand what he was up against in 1947.
Helgeland's biggest problem is that he tries to do too much with the film. There are really three separate stories vying for screen time: Robinson's personal tale away from baseball, which includes his romance with wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) and his relationship with his children; Robinson's struggles against often violent forms of racism on and off the field; and the way in which Robinson influenced not only baseball but society as a whole. We get bits and pieces of all three, shaken together and blended into something that a times feels incomplete. An argument can be made that there's no way to effectively narrow down the movie's scope without impacting its themes, but the same contention could have been made about Spielberg's Lincoln, and look how that turned out. If Helgeland's intention was to tell Jackie's story in a linear, paint-by-numbers fashion, he has achieved that goal.
The most compelling scenes in 42 happen on the baseball field. That's where Robinsion shows off the dynamic athleticism that made him Branch Rickey's choice to break the color barrier. In one sequence, he reaches first, steals second, steals third, then comes home on a single. That's more dramatic than when he hits a home run. The centerpiece of 42 recounts Robinson's real-life verbal excoriation by racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk). Although Chapman wasn't the only opponent to hurl epithets at Robinson, his tirades are by far the most persistent and vicious. Chapman's assaults, while humiliating to Robinson in the moment when they occur, have unintended consequences; not only do they hasten Robinson's acceptance by his teammates but they help to turn the tide among moderate baseball fans. Chapman's words are widely reported in newspapers and many whites are appalled.
TV actor Chadwick Boseman provides an effective Robinson. There's not a lot of depth in his performance but he's convincing on the bases, in the field, and at-bat, and shows enough emotion to give the historical figure an element of humanity. Harrison Ford's physical resemblance to Branch Rickey is impressive but the performance skews toward making the Dodgers' GM into a candidate for sainthood. There's little doubt that there was an element of idealism in Rickey's decision to integrate baseball but the film presents him as a man with few (if any) character flaws. Outside of these two actors, no one has much to do. Alan Tudyk's Chapman is suitably nasty, providing a capable antagonist (if only for a few scenes). Nicole Beharie is attractive fulfilling the "stand by her man" role. And Lucas Black's Pee Wee Reese becomes the only non-anonymous Dodger player not named Robinson.
For those unfamiliar with Robinson, his era, or his struggles, 42 represents a solid introduction to what the man meant to baseball and the civil rights struggle. The movie works better as a teaching tool than as a pure drama, although its weaknesses as the latter are in part counterbalanced by the compelling nature of the story it tells. For baseball fans, there's the added benefit of excellent recreations of 1940's era stadiums and play. Their authenticity and the lack of grievous mistakes in the way the game is represented, make this a worthwhile sports movie that's about more than winning and losing.
42 (United States, 2013)
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Merloni, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Alan Tudyk
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland
Cinematography: Don Burgess
Music: Mark Isham
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers