42 is the story of the legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson. The focus of the film is his first two years playing in the minor league and then the major league. America began to change after World War II, however, America’s most beloved pastime, baseball was as mired in racist traditions as any organization in the U.S. at the time. Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) makes the momentous decision to bring an African-American player to his team. Rickey says in the movie that it wasn’t about finding any player it was about finding the right player. Rickey understood the racist vitriol that would surround his decision and yet decided that it was the right thing to do.
Other than knowing that Jackie Robinson was the first major league African-American baseball player I was completely ignorant of the rest of his story. Being a pioneer is never fun and I don’t think the movie depicted even a small fraction of the crap that Jackie had to put up with. Chadwick Boseman, a relative unknown, plays Jackie with a combination of grit and grace. I especially enjoyed the scenes between Boseman and Nicole Beharie, who played Robinson’s wife. Their relationship felt believable, and Nicole clearly showed her love and strength for Jackie. One distracting element of the movie was Harrison Ford’s mouth. To embody the character of Branch Rickey, Harrison adopted an accent and manipulated his mouth in such a bizarre way that anytime he was speaking it was the only thing I could look at. This is such a minor issue that as a whole, it didn’t take much away from the picture.
It is a solid, fairly predictable, biographical movie. Most sports movies have the cliché, phoenix rising from the ashes moment that makes your blood rush and your heart race. This movie was much quieter, and I left a little bit disappointed I didn’t have a stronger emotional reaction to the film. There is no denying that Jackie Robinson paved the way for all future minority sports players in the United States, but honestly, I wanted to shed a few tears. The closest I got was a scene in the dugout after Robinson has refused to take the bait from the overtly racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team and in frustration he destroys his bat and collapses in despair. I felt his heartbreak and his frustration at not being able to stand up for himself. Boseman handled the scene beautifully and it was one of the most memorable moments of the movie. B
I agree with many sportswriters that the integration of Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson was the most important moment in the history of American sports. Robinson wasn’t just a transcendent athletic talent, he was also a man of courage and grace. Boseman does a good job of embodying Robinson with a strength of will and character in the face of hatred and opposition that is a true definition of heroism. 42 tells Robinson’s story without pulling any punches and doesn’t shy away from shining a light on the racial ugliness of the era. In an effort to make sure they presented all the facts, I think that writer/director Brian Helgeland misses out on the emotional impact of Robinson’s tale. This film was too much about the bile and too little about the triumph. The actors serve the material well, but I don’t think they were served very well by the material. B-