About 40 minutes into 42, a film based on Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, I wondered if director/screenwriter Brian Helgeland was going to continue playing this extraordinary real-life tale safe and be content giving audiences a Walt Disney type fairy-tale packed with feel-good moments or challenge them by showing the disgusting and vile treatment Robinson faced.
And then, like a pitcher staring at a hitter with bases loaded and no outs, Helgeland finally settles down and finds his film’s focus. Amazingly it’s by turning one of the more likable character actors — Alan Tudyk — into a spiteful, loathsome, insult-spewing racist baseball manager.
As Tudyk’s Ben Chapman heaps ever more infuriating statements to Robinson (Chadwick Boseman in a star-making performance), Helgeland forces the viewer to stew in the jarring, uncomfortable scene until they gain a small bit of perspective of what Robinson had to endure. In that 15-minute span, Helgeland finds his groove and makes 42 one of the more inspirational sports films you’ll see.
Helgeland initially seems unsure of how to approach Robinson — as he shifts perspectives jumping back and forth between an immediate one from Robinson himself to another, more reverent account from journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland, Bride Wars). Wendell’s narration is forced and not nearly as effective as Danny DeVito’s connect the story dots guide in L.A. Confidential, which earned Helgeland a 1998 Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
Wendell explains how Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford in easily his best work in decades), the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted to desegregate baseball (and if more blacks buy tickets and come to the games, even better) and wouldn’t fall in line with the “unspoken rule” of keeping blacks in the Negro Leagues.
Rickey opts for Robinson — a talented player who may be able to handle the hate-filled barrage. Boseman has a bright smile, a likeable demeanor and is able to convey Robinson as an iconic figure while being a regular guy just trying to enjoy life with his wife, Rachel (Nichole Beharie).
Their scenes are familiar to anyone who’s watched a sports movie with the supportive spouse. While it’s not groundbreaking, the two have great chemistry and it’s nice seeing new faces. Ironically Spike Lee couldn’t sell studios on a Jackie Robinson movie in 1995 with Denzel Washington in the lead.
Helgeland breezes by Robinson’s formative years, which could have provided more insight into Robinson’s mindset and how he was able to cope with the abuses heaped on him by hotel managers, opposing teams and even teammates. Helgeland hits the important beats of Robinson’s life, but I wanted more — a testament to Boseman’s performance.
There’s some thought-provoking scenes such as Robinson’s teammate, Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), makes his own stance against racism and a memorable one where a son trying to emulate his father’s racist behavior finds that ignorant hatred isn’t as easy as it looks. It’s not all heavy though as there’s a number of funny, crowd-pleasing moments with Ford especially having some great lines.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Photo credit: D. Stevens/Warner Bros. Pictures
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