By Linc Leifeste | April 17, 2013
Director: Brian Helgeland
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Andre Holland, Christopher Melonie, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Alan Tudyk, Hamish Linklater, T.R. Knight, John C. McGinley, Toby Huss, Max Gail, Brad Beyer, James Pickens Jr.
If you don’t know the basic story of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier, you should do two things: hang your head in shame and run out to your local theater to catch 42, in that order. Yes, his story is that important of a piece of American history. That said, 42 is not a great film. It’s debatable whether it’s even a very good film. But it is a competent film, an old-fashioned film, that tells an amazing story about a true American hero.
Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) was a talented athlete, having lettered in four sports during his time at UCLA, who had also served his country during World War II, although a racially motivated court-martial from which he was ultimately exonerated served to prevent him from seeing action. After an honorable discharge in 1944, Robinson eventually landed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, where he put up impressive numbers as the starting shortstop. And if that’s where he had stayed, he very well may have wound up one of many talented but largely forgotten professional African-American baseball players of the 1940’s. But America was changing, and changing for the better. As the film points out, soldiers of color were returning to America changed after serving their country and spending time in a less racist Europe.
Enter Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), club president and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who has decided to pursue a grand experiment and field MLB’s first black player of the modern era. Something I think the film fails to portray adequately is the stature of baseball in American culture at this time, when it was still truly “America’s game,” which leaves me wondering if younger viewers might not understand the level of hatred such an action stirred up or just how bold and dangerous a move it was for everyone involved. And why in the world would a successful and wealthy white man do such a thing? Well, that’s probably debatable but the film’s Rickey would winkingly tell you that it’s because he wants to win baseball games and there’s a huge untapped talent pool he wants to access while the film itself would lead you to believe it’s because he can no longer stomach the racism of the current system. Me, I’d tell you the truth is probably somewhere in between.
While I won’t make the charge that 42 isn’t concerned with the truth, I will say that I didn’t find the movie to be concerned with depth or nuance. Jackie Robinson was a famously reserved man and this film presents him as such, even during private moments. Yes, we momentarily see Robinson rage in a moment of near-brokenness but it feels like an aberration. The onscreen interactions with his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) feel sanitized and artificial. And Ford hams it up as a borderline cartoonish Rickey, with his stuffed gut and heavy accent, the actor’s true identity successfully buried beneath the prosthetic makeup and fake bushy eyebrows.
But despite all of my reservations, I highly recommend 42 for the story it tells and for its heart-on-the-sleeve fashion of telling it. While at times the film feels like a series of carefully executed retro set-pieces, it looks great and is filled with solid performances, especially from supporting cast members Christopher Melonie and Lucas Black. And the film gives viewers at least a small sense of the sheer hell that Jackie Robinson suffered. There’s a moment in the film that is exquisitely shot, as Robinson is walking down the tunnel into the light shining on the baseball diamond, the first black player in modern MLB history to enter a game, that stuck with me. It’s a monumental moment in American history, in this nation’s ongoing process of redeeming itself, of overcoming atrocious deficiencies as part of the process of creating a more perfect union and one that is worthy of being capably presented on the big screen on a regular basis. Here’s hoping that the next time around, the presentation involves a little more depth and artistic vision.