While marred by sentimentality and some formulaic plot points, 42 is a great telling of the quintessential tale of racial prejudice in sports.
Sports dramas have been done time and time again, especially films that document the struggles of African-American integration during the Civil Rights Era. Ranging from Remember the Titans to Glory Road, the subgenre has covered racism in sports such as football, basketball and boxing. However, for the longest time Hollywood seemed to have forgotten perhaps the greatest of these stories – Jackie Robinson’s MLB career. Not only was he a great player to begin with, Robinson was the first African-American to break the color barrier in major league baseball, setting a huge precedent for civil rights movements in sports leagues thereafter. Now that Hollywood is adapting this great story to film with 42, has Jackie Robinson received the big screen treatment he deserves?
Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), executive over the Brooklyn Dodgers, is looking for ways to increase his team’s profits and win the National League title. He also sees a great problem with the racial imbalance in the United States, so he offers a contract to up-and-coming Negro League player Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) to play for the Montreal Royals in the 1946 season. This decision of course proves to be unsettling in nearly every single city that they play in, drawing in throngs of angry people and even mobs that threaten to kill Robinson. Despite the backlash against Jackie Robinson’s presence on white minor league teams, eventually he is offered a contract for the Brooklyn Dodgers and joins them for their 1947 season.
Biographical films are tough to execute, because they often face problems with making such a story compelling without needing to adhere to genre conventions. Unfortunately, this is the main flaw in 42 since writer-director Brian Helgeland plays things a little safe. Moments of sappiness are certainly accentuated throughout the film, and certain plot threads seemed manipulated solely for the provoking of an emotional response. Sometimes this method of writing is successful, but in 42’s case it doesn’t quite work. This is certainly seen in the ending as well, for even though it still triggered emotions in me, I cannot deny that it felt rushed and packaged together. Nonetheless, 42 is a well-written, entertaining and inspiring dramatization of one of the greatest stories in the history of sports.
Helgeland is a talented writer – his previous works include L.A. Confidential, A Knight’s Tale and Mystic River – and his proficiency is once again seen in 42 due to solid dialogue and excellent pacing. Another aspect that really impressed me is that in a manner akin to Lincoln, the story is not presented as a complete life story of Jackie Robinson – in fact, the script only focuses on two years of his baseball career, resulting in better pacing and less clichés. The inspirational crux of the true-life story is here as well, even though the topic of racism may not be as relevant as it would have been if 42 was produced over 40 years ago. Jackie Robinson is a hero we can all believe in, and his journey provides for an emotional payoff, along with a message of answering hostility and injustice with peace. All in all, the great story of Jackie Robinson’s MLB recruitment is handled well here, despite some issues with genre conventions and sentimentality.
Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal as Jackie Robinson may open doors for his career to expand, for his performance in 42 is solid. The script describes his character as a man who must hold back a lot of his anger in a system dominated by those of the opposing race, and I feel that he channeled that aspect of Robinson quite well since he definitely holds back a lot in his performance. However, when he unleashes emotion here, it’s powerful what’s seen from him onscreen. 42 also sports some good supporting work, even if some of the actors play their characters to nearly a cartoonish level. For instance, Christopher Meloni is entertaining as the Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher, and Alan Tudyk will seriously upset Phillies fans in a scene in which his character – Ben Chapman, the manager of the Phillies at the time – unleashes a lot of racial slurs against Robinson.
Among the best of these players is Harrison Ford; yes, he does overplay Branch Rickie at times, but otherwise this is the best performance the great actor has given in years. At this point, Ford seems to be reveling in the fact that he is an aging star akin to Clint Eastwood, which is alluded to by his trademark grizzle that he takes to another level in 42. One might think that would be a bad direction to take yourself in; however, for Ford’s character it really works, and it makes his performance all the better for it since he otherwise nails this role from a traditional standpoint.
42 is certainly well-directed, despite the fact that TV-grade CGI is occasionally implemented to compose the film’s backgrounds. That said, 42 is a finely shot and edited film. What I especially love about the cinematography is that it has a slight sepia tint at times, obviously reflecting the period of 42’s story. It’s a subtle choice, and I feel that it really works. Director Brian Helgeland previously worked on sports sequences to some extent in A Knight’s Tale, and his experience from that film carries over into the baseball sequences here. When the baseball scenes are on display, they are fluid, exciting and fun to watch. One downside to them is that they are often short for the sake of focusing specifically on Jackie Robinson’s story, but I guess that could also be considered a good choice from Helgeland since it keeps 42 moving along at a steady clip.
I will not say that 42 is the best movie of 2012 so far, for there is a definite lack of risk-taking in the story, occasional pervasive sappiness and some other minor narrative flaws. Nonetheless, 42 is a well-acted, entertaining, inspirational and respectfully-told portrayal of Jackie Robinson’s success story. From one who loves baseball as much as I do, I can honestly say that 42 will be pleasing for lovers of the sport. If not, well, I can assure common moviegoers that this is a very good movie in any regard. There are many stories of racial advancement that have been told on film, but 42 is definitely one of the best I have seen.