If you were to order 42 at the ballpark you’d get a corndog. The film - the true story of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball - is hokey, sentimental, sort of trite and middle of the road. It’s hagiography writ in Cracker Jacks. It’s also pretty good and fairly effective.
In 1947 Jackie Robinson donned the number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first black man to play in the big leagues. He did this at the insistence of a man named Branch Rickey, who saw the coming future of integration and embraced it fully. Along the way the two men were ostracized, criticized, threatened and cursed. None of which, it turns out, is particularly cinematic or dramatic.
Let me take a step back here: what Jackie Robinson did - the way he bravely stood against evil forces in society - was truly heroic. But in the movie 42 it’s pretty much only one-note heroism; writer/director Brian Helgeland has presented us Jackie Robinson as saint, a holy figure floating high above the bleachers whose eventual victory over the forces of racism is pre-ordained. Branch Rickey is another holy figure, a God-loving man whose biggest flaw is that he’s sort of gruff in his pursuit of the betterment of mankind.
There’s a small amount of layered humanity offered to Jackie; in the movie we are told (not shown) that he has a famous temper, and thus it will be hard for him to suffer the slings and arrows of racist cat-calling. There’s a lengthy sequence where he is relentlessly pummeled with old-fashioned racist vitriol (all coming from the mouth of Firefly’s Alan Tudyk, playing Earth’s Most Racist Jerk) that ends with the movie’s best and most true scene - Jackie breaking down in a hallway, smashing his bat to kindling, unable to reconcile his masculine need to silence his attacker with the larger need to present an untarnished, perfect image of a Great Negro Baseball Player to the world.
That scene is one of the few times the movie comes truly alive; the other times 42 really sings are the baseball scenes. Chadwick Boseman, who plays Jackie, absolutely captures the man’s sheer love of the game, the mental back and forth constant base-stealer Robinson had with pitchers and the exhilaration of throwing yourself into something at which you simply excel. Boseman is so good in these scenes and in the breakdown scene that I desperately wish the script gave him more notes to play. This guy feels like a movie star. Helgeland, meanwhile, stages these scenes with flair and a sense for great storytelling through action. I wanted to see an entire movie of just Jackie Robinson playing baseball.
Opposite Boseman is Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey. At this point in his career Ford is well-known for sleepwalking through movies, but he puts it all into 42. The result is a cartoonish growl and puffed up presence that is amusing and, to say the least engaged, but always a fair distance from human. Rickey chokes up near the end of the movie (spoiler: the film is very triumphant) and Ford can’t quite seem to go from drawling bombast to real human emotion properly. It’s a funny moment. It’s also a moment that makes me fear for the return of Han Solo in Episode VII.
One of the best things about 42 is the way it allows a steady stream of character actors - old and young - to make their way across screen. Chris Meloni, Toby Huss, Max Gail, John C. McGinley, Hamish Linklater all get nice moments. Lucas Black has some wonderful scenes as Pee Wee Reese. And the aforementioned Tudyk truly has fun digging into a litany of racist refrains. Helgeland cast the hell out of his movie.
That casting prowess extends to Shame’s Nicole Beharie. Beautiful and charismatic, Beharie plays Jackie’s loving wife. While the rest of the film is filled with schmaltzy cliches, I found the relationship between Jackie and Rachel Robinson to be refreshingly alive and true. Rachel, like Jackie, doesn’t have many shades to her - she’s tough, smart, decent - but Beharie finds the humanity in each of them.
42 feels like a biopic that would have been made during Jackie Robinson’s lifetime, something that would have been in theaters in 1950. Helgeland goes gooey here, and while he manages to achieve moments of real, throat-tightening uplift, it’s often with the heavy assistance of Mark Isham’s syrupy score and emotion-jerking low angles from cinematographer Don Burgess*. Helgeland has two truly great directorial efforts under his belt - the underappreciated A Knight’s Tale and the REALLY underappreciated Payback: Straight Up - and one terrible one, The Order. 42 is right in the middle; a decent movie that aspires to maudlin mediocrity in an effort to tell an important story in a way that will least upset anyone.
One last note: this is a movie about a vital moment in black history written by, directed by and largely starring white men. It’s a movie that opts to stop telling its story the moment that other black men entered baseball. It’s a movie that spends a lot of time making sure we know that a lot of white guys had to be there to help Jackie Robinson make his mark in history. This is a movie about the black experience in America that often feels very, very distant from the black experience. I don’t think any one group owns the copyright on stories about themselves, but I wonder what 42 with a different perspective looks like.
* who shot the film on the Red. Digital photography in period films has been dodgy, and some sequences in 42 look waaaay too video, but on the whole there’s a rustic sepia quality to the cinematography that works.