Just to make it clear, it’s nearly impossible not to enjoy 42 in some way. It’s a sports movie about civil rights involving the holy grail of sports movie sports, baseball. Seriously, no other sport lends itself to drama like baseball does. It’s slow paced, allows for dramatic breaks and the sound of a home run hitting a bat at the last triumphant moment is one of the greatest cliches (in the best of ways) in all of cinema.
42 is a baseball movie about one of baseball’s greatest and because of that it would have had to be really terrible to not be enjoyable in some way. Thankfully, it isn’t really terrible. While it may not be the best baseball film ever the movie leading up to that cliched home run crack of the bat is definitely worth watching.
Director: Brian Helgeland
Release Date: April 12, 2013
In case you were unaware, which I fear a chunk of the population may be, 42 is the number of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the first African American to play baseball for a major league baseball team. 42 is the movie about his career leading up to and including his first season. I’m not a Robinson expert so I can’t speak to how accurate the entire thing is, but the film puts heavy emphasis on Robinson’s relationship with the Bronx Dodger’s owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) and Robinson’s relationship with his wife, Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie).
The former is easily the most interesting relationship as Rickey helps to mold and support Robinson into the hero and legend he would become. Rickey was instrumental in bring black players into major league baseball and the motivation behind his actions along with his personal relationship with Robinson makes for some truly compelling storytelling, despite it often getting hammed up in a bit of melodrama. The movie also avoids the unfortunate tendency of many Hollywood films to tell the story of the white man who was behind the black man’s rise to equality. 42 could have easily fallen into this trap, but instead of playing Rickey as a support character it plays him as a separate entity, thus giving Robinson the true thrust while still developing a wonderful relationship.
It helps that Harrison Ford gives one of his best performances in years. The actor had really slipped from good graces recently (see: Morning Glory, Cowboys & Aliens and Crystal Skull), and it appeared he’d pretty much stopped caring about his roles. He delivers with Rickey, morphing his voice and mannerism into the legendary baseball owner. He isn’t the only one to capture their characters either. Boseman captures the effortless charm and not-so-effortless steel of Robinson that made him able to take on barrages of racism while playing. Plus, in a smaller, but absolutely fantastic role John C. McGinley plays the legendary Dodger’s announcer Red Barber so well I wish the man would take over all baseball game broadcasts.
Everything isn’t perfect with the film, however. The movie is all about big, sweeping ideas and loves to deliver speech after speech on them. Each scene attempting to have as much impact and import as the one before it. Most of these diatribes are well written, humorous or touching, but thanks to the constant proselytizing the film’s structure suffers. The beginning of the film seems overly long as we watch Robinson move his way up to the major leagues, but even with all that time there doesn’t seem to be enough character development. We’re given some great moments and emotional scenes, but they’re often stuck together with too little characterization to propel them forward.
This is a baseball movie about Jackie Robinson, so it’s also hard to really fault them for being a bit grandiose and obvious with their message. It’s also hard not to enjoy it. While the characters may suffer, the story is too great to fail and the screenplay sharp enough to keep you intrigued and having fun. Ford probably gets the juiciest lines, but it’s Boseman who drives the movie home despite the film not giving him everything the character deserves.
Director/writer Brian Helgeland wisely lets most of the film play out simply, without trying to put to much of a stamp on things. This was probably the right decision considering the strength of his dialog and the story compared to his experience as a director. To his credit the sports sequences never get confusing, which is a trickier thing to pull off than one might expect.
42 might have it’s issues, but the story of Jackie Robinson is too great to be held down by any of them. This is an instance of performances and charisma overcoming a films cliches and flaws to deliver something interesting. Even if it isn’t a home run, 42 easily hits a triple, and, like Robinson, could probably steal home. (Sorry, had to fit a sports metaphor in there eventually.)