The folks at Major League Baseball should be very pleased with 42, the new Jackie Robinson biopic hitting theaters today. They now have a film that they can run every April 15th — Jackie Robinson Day across the major leagues — on MLB Network when their analysts need a breather, and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown now has a non-documentary film they can show from open to close every day. High school baseball coaches, as well as history teachers, should be pleased with the film as well — it presents racism in professional sports, as well as the brave men and women who fought it — in broad, simple, hero-and-villain strokes full of “teachable moments.”
In other words, it’s harmless. It is also, aside from Chadwick Boseman’s charismatic depiction of Robinson and Harrison Ford’s scene-chewing in every frame he inhabits, pretty forgettable as a film.
Ford plays Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, a lifelong maverick of the game who, prior to the 1946 season, decides he wants to bring a black player to his team and thus break major league baseball’s “color barrier”, the informal code that had kept black ballplayers in the so-called “Negro Leagues” for decades. Ignoring the shock of his advisers and scouts, who fear the backlash in the public, the media, and from other teams, Rickey puts his plan in motion by signing Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a talented shortstop playing for the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs, to a minor league contract. Robinson, a former Army officer court-martialed and discharged for insubordination — he refused to obey a bus driver’s order to sit at the back of an Army bus — has a reputation for being fiery and tempermental, but that’s part of why Rickey chooses him. He wants a player with guts enough to fight back with performance on the field rather than with flying fists when things get ugly, and he knows they’ll get ugly.
Robinson believes himself up to the challenge. “You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts,” he tells Rickey in a line of dialogue that feels as though it was written for a history book, and of course, he does just that. He earns a spot on the Dodgers roster the following season and proves himself a powerful hitter and a terror on the bases, all the while facing opposition to his very presence on the field from all sides, including some of his own teammates.
Writer/director Brian Helgeland, who won an Oscar for another period piece set in the mid-20th Century, L.A. Confidential, delivers a product that at all times is hyper aware that its portraying the life of a man almost sainted by professional sports standards, a man whose courage in the face of racism and intolerance helped craft his legend even more than his considerable achievements on the baseball diamond. The gentle, sepia tones everything and everyone are cast in, the soaring musical score, the simple, shallow characterizations of “good guys” and “bad guys”, are all reminiscent of other baseball films filtered through the lens of nostalgia and Americana, films such as The Natural and Eight Men Out. Like those films, which at times dealt with ugliness tainting America’s pastime but for the most part highlighted players who loved the game, 42 gives us a great ballplayer who becomes a reluctant hero fighting the good fight against the evils perpetuated by selfish and small-minded people, and that fight as Helgeland depicts it is often entertaining to watch.
Where the film falls short, surprisingly, is Helgeland’s leaden, preachy script. It’s a good thing he has a strong cast who throw themselves into their roles and make the most of what they’re given, as their efforts do much to keep much of the dialogue-heavy scenes from falling completely flat. Ford, in particular, works hard to lift the material, cranking up the dour crustiness he’s been perfecting for over a decade now to play the irascible Branch Rickey, and he delivers some zingers that you’re likely to be laughing at long after the film’s credits roll.
“Do you think God likes baseball, Herb?” Rickey growls over the phone to the owner of the Philadelphia Phillies in one pivotal scene. “[Because] one day you’re gonna meet God, and when he inquires as why you didn’t take the field against Robinson in Philadelphia and you answer that it was because he was a Negro, it may not be a sufficient reply!”
In contrast to Ford’s over-the-top scene chewing, Chadwick Boseman supplies a quietly powerful, nuanced depiction of Robinson. In every scene, whether it’s sharing a tender moment with wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie, not given much to do, unfortunately), enduring taunts and epithets from the crowd and opposing players while at the plate, or simply tormenting opposing pitchers with the threat of him stealing bases at will (Robinson won two NL stolen bases titles in his Hall of Fame career), Boseman’s Robinson is likeable and accessible, as we American moviegoers love our larger-than-life sports heroes in film to be. (See Tommy Lee Jones’ Cobb for what happens when Hollywood tries to go the opposite route: the film was a flop.)
In the end, that’s why 42 fails to hit it out of the part, so to speak. It takes no risks, makes no effort to escape from easy nostalgia, even when depicting the harsh realities of segregation in professional sports and American society in general. The characters in the film who come to be the primary voices of racist antagonism are all depicted as caricatures, easily hated for their blatant ignorance and intolerance, which makes it all the easier to root for Robinson and those who eventually come to his defense because he’s earned their respect and admiration. It’s all too simplistic, and though that may appeal to those unfamiliar with this history, those who might not give a lick about baseball on any other day, or to younger viewers. To them, this could simply be entertainment with a little bit of a history lesson thrown in for good measure.
But Robinson and his story of courage deserve a depiction in film equally courageous. Robinson showed Branch Rickey that he had the guts to do what had to be done. As a filmmaker, Helgeland should have shown some guts, too.
Score: 2.5 out of 5
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland.
Running Time: 128 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language.