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Pretty when it should be gritty and grandiosely noble instead of just telling it like it was, 42 needlessly trumps up but still can’t entirely spoil one of the great American 20th century true-life stories, the breaking of major league baseball’s color line by Jackie Robinson. Whether in the deep South or the streets of Brooklyn, life here looks spiffy and well-scrubbed enough to appear in a department store window, while the soaring musical accompaniment seems to be stamping all the protagonists’ passports for immediate admission to that great ballpark in the sky. All the same, lead actors Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford cut through the artifice with engaging performances as Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, respectively, and audiences who don’t know much about the first black man to play professional baseball will be suitably impressed. Hit-starved Warner Bros. should be able to stir moderately good attendance domestically, although foreign prospects, as always with baseball yarns, are slight.
The key scene in 42, just as it was in the low-budget 1950 The Jackie Robinson Story, which starred the ballplayer himself, comes when Rickey, warning his prospect about the abuse that inevitably awaits him, demands to know if he’s “got enough guts not to fight back” when provoked by other players or fans. Robinson was not the best player in the Negro Leagues, but he was reckoned to be the one who might best withstand the trial by fire posed by teammates who didn’t want to play with him and a society that often wouldn’t allow him to travel, eat or lodge with the rest of the team.
Needing a manageable window through which to dramatize a sports breakthrough fraught with racial, social, political and attitudinal meaning, this pet project of writer-director Brian Helgeland and producer Thomas Tull zeroes in on the years 1945-47, concluding with Robinson’s first year in the majors. Although there is quick mention of a sports career at UCLA (which, the film does not note, had the most integrated sports program of any school in the U.S. at the time) and a quick temper that earned him an Army court-martial, the 26-year-old member of the American Negro League Kansas City Monarchs seems like the picture of rectitude, a well-spoken young man with a lovely wife-to-be, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), and none of the wild traits of some of his teammates.
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A religious man anxious to win as well as to integrate the league, Rickey first assigns Robinson to the Montreal Royals farm team. Spring training in Florida is no picnic; his manager and other players shun him, he’s unwelcome at the team hotel, forcing him to stay in a private home with a black family, and a good ol’ boy drives by to warn that some fellas will be coming by to “do something” about him. As Rickey has insisted, Robinson must speak only with his actions on the field of play, and so he does, hitting a homer on opening day in Jersey City, an accomplishment boldfaced and underlined by a script that insists upon having his manager then comment, “He might be superhuman after all.”
This is typical of the hyperbole and unnecessary inflation that infects the film as a whole. Rather than letting its hero’s accomplishments and behavior speak for themselves, Helgeland hammers home every achievement and then puts a halo around it, as if anyone won’t get it otherwise. The racist resistance Robinson confronted is pungently presented, especially in scenes of white Dodger teammates preparing a petition refusing to play with a black man and of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) relentlessly taunting Robinson in the batter’s box with the n-word and every other epithet he can summon.
But these moments are almost invariably followed by immediate comeuppance for the perpetrators and victory for the stoical athlete, who receives reliable support not only from Rickey but from manager Leo Durocher (a live-wire Christopher Meloni) and fellow players like shortstop Pee Wee Reese (a very good Lucas Black) and pitcher Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater), who, in a tricky scene, convinces his reluctant black friend that he should shower with the rest of the team.
42, which takes its title from its subject’s uniform number (subsequently retired by all major league teams), gets into its best groove once Robinson, after one season in the minors, makes his big-league debut on April 15, 1947, at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. Forced to play at the unfamiliar position of first base, Robinson inspires a wide range of reactions: embrace by black fans, skepticism from reporters and viciousness on the part of some opponents who deliberately throw at him, roughly slide into him and otherwise try to take him out of the game.
For his part, Robinson provides excitement with his daring base running and powerful hitting, which help the Dodgers, in his debut season, turn the tables on the previous year’s National League pennant winners, the St. Louis Cardinals, by finishing in first place. In the bargain, Robinson becomes the first recipient of a new baseball honor by being voted rookie of the year. Isn’t this victory enough, without all the triumphant blarings of Mark Isham‘s mawkishly inspiring score and such bogus sights as Pittsburgh fans cheering when Robinson helps the Dodgers clinch the pennant while playing the Pirates? The film is so averse to bad news that it avoids mentioning that the Dodgers then lost the World Series to the Yankees.
On the other hand, now-vanished stadiums, including those in Philadelphia and Cincinnati, as well as the Polo Grounds in the Bronx and Brooklyn’s own Ebbets Field, have been re-created more convincingly than in any previous films thanks to CGI adornments made to old Engel Stadium in Chattanooga. Other stadiums in the South were used for various spring training and Negro League games. A real affection for baseball and everything to do with it palpably permeates the film.
It’s a strange thing to say, but it’s true that Boseman is considerably more convincing playing Robinson than Robinson himself was in the 1950 film; when actors are sometimes derided for “just” playing themselves, there’s no recognition that this can be harder than it looks. Untrained and a bit shy in front of the camera, Robinson was pleasant enough but never forceful or dramatic. Sporting a charming lopsided smile, Boseman has the necessary appeal, proves convincing as an athlete and is expressive in spite of the fact that the man he’s playing must mostly keep his true feelings bottled up. For a long time, Robinson has no one to confide in except his wife, who’s often not around, and the sense persists that an opportunity was missed by not building up their relationship with more depth and complexity.
By contrast, it’s OK that Rickey in Helgeland’s script is a one-dimensional role; the whole man is not needed, just the committed integrationist and smart executive who knows just how to advise Robinson and keep him from exploding or imploding during the self-described “noble experiment.” Ford’s engaging performance is part-caricature and part-ingratiating father figure who knows just what to say in any crisis.
A particularly eye-and-ear-catching turn is given by John C. McGinley as the Dodgers’s legendary radio announcer Red Barber.
As one of the last century’s most inspiring and literally game-changing personal sagas, Jackie Robinson’s life can hardly help but be stirring and will no doubt impress many younger viewers, some of whom may be completely unfamiliar with his story. It’s just too bad that Helgeland can’t go for broke and get his uniform as dirty as Jackie Robinson used to do.
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