A film review by Craig J. Koban April 25, 2013

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½   

2013, PG-13, 122 mins.

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson /  Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey /  Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher /  Jon Bernthal as Ralph Branca /  John C. McGinley as Red Barber /  T.R. Knight as Harold Parrott

Written and directed by Brain Helgeland

In 1946 there were 400 players in Major League Baseball.  All of them were white.  In 1947, that number was reduced to 399 because of the landmark appearance of Jackie Robinson, who became the first African American to play in the big leagues since 1884.  

It’s impossible to overstate the historical significance of Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers when he did, because it started a slow, but inevitable chain reaction in professional sports where more black players were able to cross color lines.  Not only that, but he became a focal point and symbol in the history of desegregating the United States long before Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movement. 

42 takes its name from the number Robinson wore on his back, which became – as of 1997 – the only number to be fully retired in Major League Baseball.  The film is helmed by writer/director Brian Helgeland, who previously won an Oscar for co-writing L.A. CONFIDENTIAL as well as later directing films as far ranging as A KNIGHT’S TALE and PAYBACK.  He crafts 42 rather lovingly and respectfully as a sports biopic about a limitlessly important icon of the 20th Century.  Helgeland understands what Robinson’s place was not only in the history of his sport, but also for the history of his people as a whole, all who were still struggling with intolerant Jim Crow segregationist laws nearly a century after the Civil War.  42 certainly is earnest and noble minded, but as a film that dives deep into what really made Robinson such a compelling man, it’s a bit hollow.  The film is high on making Robinson a man of myth (which is deserving), but truly lacks at defining him with any level of complexity or nuance. 

The film begins in 1946, where America and its Allies were still recovering from the ravages and brutality of World War II.  With the defeat of their fascist enemies in the past, America now seemed willing to turn their attention to simple-minded pleasures, like baseball.  When we meet Robinson (newcomer Chadwick Boseman), he’s a young, hotshot, and immensely talented baseball player.  Unfortunately, his ability to move beyond his stature in the Negro Leagues is stunted by the prevailing racial prejudices of his day.  The notion of him ever moving to a predominantly white man’s league feels like a pipe dream for him. 

 

 

This is where Brooklyn Dodger team executive Branch Rickey (a nearly unrecognizable Harrison Ford) comes in and recognizes that he is on the cusp of doing something bold that will forever change his sport.  Sensing that adding a player of color will help his team professionally and financially, he makes an unheard of decision that will polarize his sport and country by recruiting Robinson to try out for the Dodgers, which would, in turn, initially involve a brief stint with the 1946 Montreal Royals.  Rickey relays to Robinson that if he proves his athletic worth – and can control his temper when dealing with what will be the inescapable racial backlash -  then he will have a place on the Dodgers...and all for $600 and a $3500 signing bonus.  Robinson agrees, becomes a sensation for his club in the Great White North, and then gets his landmark opportunity in the Major Leagues.  Unfortunately for him, nearly everyone outside of Rickey – from everyday citizens, sports commentators, and even his teammates – don’t want to have their white league overcome by an injection of African talent. 

Helgeland does a good job of immersing us in the heights of the disturbing racial intolerance of Robinson’s heyday.  42 also wisely reminds viewers in its introduction that many African Americans fought in WWII to secure the freedom of their country, only to then return to it and face a long and uphill battle to gain acceptance and tolerance.  The extent of venomous racial slurs and unspeakably prejudicial acts directed on Robinson and his family are jaw dropping, which only reinforces what a man of pride, inner strength, and incredible mental resolve he was (just witness an unrelentingly vile scene where Alan Tudyk – playing the Philadelphia Phillies manager – berates Robinson on the field with the n-word for what feels like a hellish eternity).  The central quandary for Robinson was to gain acceptance as a player of talent and worth when a country around him forced his kind to drink in separate water fountains and use separate washrooms. 

There is absolutely no doubt that Robinson was a hero, a legend, and a persona that caused a seismic shift in baseball and society as a whole, not to mention that the times he lived in were shamefully hurtful and bigoted.  42 paints this man’s story with a heightened level of hero worship and compassion it certainly deserves.  Yet, too much of the time the film feels padded and soft-pedaled with its narrative and focus; it’s like it yearns to work over any rough edges to Robinson’s personality – which, no doubt, were there  -  and relay to the viewer a man that was nearly faultless.  Instead of getting a fully realized and compellingly layered portrait of the man, we more or less get a vague impression of who he was and what he meant to the game.  Throughout its 122 minutes, 42 feels like a painfully conventional examination of an iconic man that was anything but conventional.   

This is not the fault of Chadwick Boseman, who imbues in Robinson a rock steady fearlessness, an unbridled passion for baseball, and a resoundingly thick skin for putting up with the toxic prejudices of his era.  Boseman has a sort of low-key and internalized resolve and fiery conviction of a young Denzel Washington that serves his role rather well.  The same can't be said for Ford, who dons a fat suit, some bushy eyebrows, and a slurred and raspy inflection that makes him sound like a dead ringer for Nick Nolte at times while playing Rickey.  There is something to be said of Ford going out of his comfort window in choosing roles – as he does here – but his performance is almost too aggressively and distractingly showy and mannered as the Dodgers’ head honcho.  Too much of the time, Ford seems to be camera mugging in a “See, look at me, I’m acting and immersed in character!” manner for his own good.  The screenplay also does not help his cause, as it explores Rickey as a man of almost one-sidedly saint-like virtues that’s on-screen too much when the film should have focused more on Robinson himself. 

Robinson was a phenomenal man and a magnificent baseball player.  His story deserves to be told, and 42 understands how inspirational he was during his early career in the sport.  The problem with the film – despite its obvious good will as a valuable history lesson – is that it does very little in terms of taking chances and gambles with the sports biopic genre as a whole.  Again, Helgeland takes a safe, conventional – make that achingly conventional – and pedestrian approach with the underlining material.  He knows how to make a lush and immersive period film that looks every part of the time and setting that it takes place in, but beyond its handsome production artifice, stalwart lead performance, and fine intentions, 42 seems to lack a much-needed edge and complexity.  As Rickey growls to Robinson at one point while recruiting him, “I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.”  That’s my main grievance with 42: it’s got ample heart, but not the guts to dig deeper into its subject matter. 

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