Film Review: 42Jackie Robinson helps break baseball's color bar when he plays for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Moving account of an American icon.
Major League Baseball has a mixed record on racism, so any opportunity to revisit the life of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson is welcome. Since he is often viewed as a civil-rights figure, moviegoers today may not be aware of his accomplishments on the field. 42 does a good job in capturing the sport of baseball, but where this film really shines is in its depiction of the pervasive and virulent bigotry the athlete faced on a daily basis.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland takes a roundabout way into the story, starting with a montage that shows how segregated baseball of the time was, then introducing Brooklyn Dodger owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who intends to capitalize on the black market by integrating his team. A nationwide search leads to Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a star of the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League.
Rickey was astute about the obstacles facing Robinson. Not just players and managers, but umpires, owners, policemen and especially the fans were all vocal in their opposition to a black Dodger. When Robinson marries his girlfriend Rachel (Nicole Beharie), he gets some of the support he needs to face the public. Also offering help: Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), a black reporter hired by Rickey to accompany Robinson through spring training.
It takes quite a while for the film to get to Robinson's first practice in Florida with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' Minor League team. From there the plot alternates between Robinson's on-field career and behind-the-scenes maneuvers with teammates, the press and baseball's hierarchy. We see his opening-day home run in 1946, spring training in Panama in 1947, and his progression that year through the Major League season.
As a writer, Helgeland (an Oscar-winner for the L.A. Confidential script) tends to dole out reversals and their subsequent inspirational messages a bit too regularly. Still, some of the dialogue bites deeply. Dodger manager Leo Durocher (an excellent Christopher Meloni) is succinct to his angry white players about Robinson: "He's only the first." Rickey, a devout Methodist, has a biblical fury that yields pungent lines, like his advice about fighting a bigot: "You cannot meet him on his own low ground." But few other characters are as colorful.
As a director, Helgeland leans toward the reverential. Typical is a shot of a black youngster praying in the stands right before Robinson makes another outstanding play.
The film is filled with beautiful period details. Cars, clothes, billboards, even John C. McGinley's cameo as the laconic sportscaster Red Barber feel authentic. But by focusing on what was an essentially all-white milieu, 42 sacrifices a full accounting of the vibrant black culture of the time.
Boseman, who played running back Floyd Little in 2008's The Express, is thoroughly convincing as Robinson. Ford bluffs his way through his part as Rickey, leaning too much on a rough growl and a half-chewed cigar. But the actor finds Rickey's gruff decency, especially during a dugout scene that shows just how isolated Robinson was.
Alan Tudyk deserves special mention for his turn as the bigoted Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. He delivers a tirade against Robinson that will shock many viewers unaccustomed to just how ugly racism of the time could be.
Does 42 take too many narrative shortcuts? Is its depiction of Robinson a bit too saintly? Does the pacing falter at times? The film has its flaws, but this is an important story that needs to be seen. And in moments like Peewee Reese (Lucas Black) putting his arm around Robinson in front of thousands of cursing Cincinnati fans, 42 shows just how far we've come. (Robinson appeared as himself in 1950's low-budget The Jackie Robinson Story.)