A movie like 42 can be a tricky proposition for a filmmaker. Should the movie tell Jackie Robinson's life story or focus on a particular period of his life, presumably the one that most defines him?
Writer-director Brian Helgeland wisely opted for the latter in his film, recounting the events surrounding Robinson becoming the first black man to play in the major leagues and alluding to other events in his life (such as being court-martialed while in the Army, a story that warranted its own TV movie) throughout the script.
Yet Helgeland doesn't just tell Robinson's story here. In fact, some might think he doesn't delve deep enough into the man, choosing instead to depict the circumstances he was placed in.
We do get an idea of what made Robinson special, how he was able to keep a stiff upper lip and reign in his emotions in the face of horrifying racial prejudice and hatred. The movie would be an utter failure otherwise. (Just in case you don't comprehend when Robinson might be viewed as heroic, the camera tilted upward at him and the swelling strings of the musical score lets you know.)
Much of the credit for that should go to Chadwick Boseman, who portrays Robinson. I had never seen him in anything else before, but after this performance, we'll surely be seeing more of him on the big and small screens. Boseman's Robinson comes across as defiant, stoic, quietly angry and, perhaps most importantly, charismatic.
Boseman sells the athleticism too, which is so important in sports movies. The action has to look authentic. Sports fans know the real thing and can immediately tell when someone is "acting," rather than really playing. Robinson, of course, was known for his speed, and Boseman looks like someone ready to uncoil and unleash his talents on the basepaths.
I actually felt like the movie could have used more baseball scenes, but there were probably just enough. (The CGI recreations of classic ballparks like Ebbets Field and Crosley Field are fantastic too.) The story does a fine job of conveying what sort of ballplayer Robinson was. He wasn't a slugger, maybe he wasn't a pure hitter. But he had a great batting eye and had no problem with waiting for his pitch, taking a walk and letting the opposing pitcher beat himself.
Best of all, Helgeland and Boseman show how disruptive Robinson was as a baserunner. He completely took pitchers out of their game as he took a lead off first base and took steps toward second, skittering back and forth trying to draw a throw or force a balk. Robinson was a game-changing force on the basepaths, the likes of which teammates and opposing players had never seen before.
It was another savvy choice by the filmmakers to pick an actor who wasn't a familiar face. Imagine if Will Smith or Jamie Foxx had played this role. (Or Denzel Washington, who was once ready to play Robinson in a Spike Lee movie.) As a viewer, you'd be thinking, "Hey, that's Will Smith playing baseball." But using a relative unknown gets past that hang-up, allowing us to lose ourselves in the movie and buy in to the portrayal.
But this movie is just as much about Branch Rickey and his efforts to bring black players into baseball because he knows their talent can make the difference in the Brooklyn Dodgers eventually winning the World Series.
When asked why he's conducting this "noble experiment," Rickey frequently says it's about the money that comes with winning ballgames, with tapping into an audience and fanbase that will come out to watch one of their own make history on the field. Later, we find out Rickey has an underlying personal issue with racism and baseball's color barrier that he needs to confront, as well.
Playing Rickey is a different kind of performance for Harrison Ford. He's almost always been the heroic figure, either a cocky guy who figures he can take on most any situation or a normal one who's suddenly thrust into unusual circumstances.
Some of that cockiness and sense of purpose finds its way into his portrayal of Rickey, I suppose. This is a man bold enough to bring a black man onto his team because he knows it's the right thing to do, despite the outrage, resentment and blowback that he'll receive. While Rickey may also come across as eccentric and gruff, he has to be the type of man that Robinson would want to play for, to accept his demand to take the cruelty and ignorance he'll face without retaliating.
It would have been very easy for Ford to slide into caricature, underneath the make-up that he has to wear and his gruff, blunt way of speaking to his players, managers, assistants and fellow executives. But Ford incorporates all of those traits to convey a person, not a cartoon character.
As someone who's spent virtually his entire life admiring Ford as a heroic leading man — Han Solo, Rick Deckard, Indiana Jones, Richard Kimble — it's pretty cool to see him become a character actor late in his career.
The relationship between Robinson and Rickey results in the best scenes of the movie. This is best demonstrated when we see that the relentless taunts, insults and epithets have indeed taken their toll on Robinson, contrary to the stoicism he displays on the field. As would surely be the case with anyone, keeping all of that pain and suffering inside eventually requires a release. Otherwise, a person would surely go crazy or just die inside.
It's here when we see Robinson at his most human, not just as an iconic, almost saintly figure. But Rickey is right there to support him and encourage him. Maybe no one was ready to take the kind of abuse Robinson suffered. Rickey was obviously asking him to shoulder a monumental task. Yet they helped each other through it.
Of course, another relationship that the movie devotes significant time to is the one between Robinson and his wife, Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie). The two have a great love throughout the story, conveying the idea that Robinson never could have endured the ill will he experienced on and off the field without seeing a sympathetic face in the stands and coming home to someone that loves him.
Does the movie lay the romance on a little thick? Sure. But it's an aspect of the film that will surely appeal to a wider audience, especially those who really don't have much use for the baseball side of the story. And really, it doesn't get too goopy.
Ultimately, 42 is a stylized storybook telling of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier. It doesn't go too deep into an exploration of the man and what makes him tick.
The film also doesn't delve too far into the culture of the time, other than showing verbal prejudice in its ugliest form (perhaps best embodied by Alan Tudyk's thankless portrayal of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman). It's not subtle, There are several one-dimensional characters meant to convey racist, narrow-minded white people. But at least it's not as heavy-handed as a movie like The Help.
For someone unfamiliar with baseball history and Jackie Robinson's place in it, this movie will probably be enough. Look at what he went through and how he changed people along the way!
But for many others, the story will leave you wanting more because there's just so much more to be told. (And if you're already familiar with much of Robinson's story, you might be frustrated by what was left out.) Perhaps that's what Helgeland set out to accomplish. This is a gateway story, something that can entertain mass audiences and eventually be shown in schools. If you want to learn more, go to a library or bookstore and check out a biography. Or hope someone makes a great documentary one day.
However, if you're looking for a good baseball movie, 42 won't let you down.