In 42, writer/director Brian Helgeland chronicles the inspirational story of Jackie Robinson; his personal journey from the Negro leagues to whites-only Major League Baseball, which was a catalyst for desegregation in America’s favorite pastime. When General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), decides to break the unspoken MLB color barrier, he finds “the right man” in Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) – a spirited and talented ball player willing to endure a firestorm of controversy and hatred to pave the way for racial integration.
Robinson accepts the task of having “the guts not to fight back” and is faced with menacing actions from his own teammates, rival baseball players, and hordes of sports fans who consider his spot on the Brooklyn Dodgers both a disgrace to the game of baseball and an unwelcome precursor to social change. Despite threats to his wife, child, and future playing baseball, Robinson’s love for the game and talent on the field (aided by a number of key allies) ignites respect and support from fans of all backgrounds as the Dodgers chase the 1947 pennant.
Helgeland, who directed A Knight’s Tale and penned the Mystic River and L.A. Confidential screenplays, is not the first writer to turn Jackie Robinson’s triumph over racism on and off the field into a drama. Several other projects have tackled the topic before – including Broadway musical The First (1981), starring David Alan Grier, and the made-for-TV movie, Soul of the Game (1996), with Blair Underwood portraying the famous number 42. Nevertheless, Helgeland delivers a solid “based on true events” film with 42 – a sharp and uplifting modern drama with captivating performances that should appeal to baseball fans, movie lovers, and history buffs.
Chadwick Boseman (Persons Unknown) stars as Robinson – offering a smart mix of emotional drama and charm to prevent the film from becoming weighed down by the challenging subject matter. This isn’t to say Boseman artificially lightens the tone (no pun); instead, his contagious energy and excitement in Robinson’s achievements help to balance out more difficult scenes. It’s an intimate portrayal, where hard-knocks are met with rousing (and downright entertaining) payoff – successfully combining the real-life Robinson ballplayer with engaging movie drama.
That said, 42 doesn’t just cater to its primary protagonist. Unlike a lot of biopics, the film casts a wide focus, successfully implementing a number of important side characters and providing each with their own importance – such as a third act scene centered around Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black). Harrison Ford is especially engaging as Branch Rickey and is responsible for several of 42‘s best scenes. Rickey’s genuine personal investment in Robinson, plus an unabashed willingness to go toe-to-toe with naysayers, provides a fertile foundation for Harrison – especially when sharing banter with individuals who are reluctant to “change.”
Adding to the roster of solid performers are Nicole Beharie (Shame) as Robinson’s wife Rachel and Andre Holland (1600 Penn) as Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter, Wendell Smith – along with Alan Tudyk (Firefly) in the unenviable position of portraying Philadelphia Phillies’ manager, and vocal anti-integration crusader, Ben Chapman.
In spite of solid performances and smart filmmaking choices, some elements in 42 aren’t as nuanced as others. Certain thematic ideas are presented with heavy-handed execution that, even though they are essential to the story, aren’t as successful as similar attempts in the film. Compared to the subtle inclusion of future World Series champion Ed Charles (Dusan Brown), designed to show Robinson’s influence on future generations of ball players, on-the-nose altercations between Robinson and some of his teammates – especially Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer) – are melodramatic. In an effort to tell an inspiring narrative with tense drama, 42 often reduces real-life individuals on both sides of the controversy to caricature. As a result, the film sometimes leans on its stirring source material – instead of actually earning some key moments through gradual character development.
Similarly, Helgeland explicitly spells-out connections that most audience members would have easily made on their own – risking authenticity in an effort to hammer a specific point of view or ethical juxtaposition. In many cases, 42 manages these efforts through subtle character moments and entertaining interactions, but from time to time, the film isn’t as delicate and undercuts the effectiveness of a few key plot points with staged setups. Still, few of the film’s missteps detract from the overall success of 42‘s storytelling – which, as mentioned, successfully captures the ups and downs in Jackie Robinson’s personal experiences along with the political maneuverings necessary to transform an American paragon (in this case baseball culture).
It’s an uplifting film, relying on a blend of light-hearted humor to help overcome the darker elements, but it’s worth noting that moviegoers who are sensitive to racial slurs and hateful language may be surprised by the amount of profanity in 42. Instead of surface-level window dressing, racial slurs are implemented with care to put audiences in Robinson’s shoes – resulting in some of the film’s most biting and profound moments. Considering 42 is based on true events, it would be hard to fully capture the story without choice language, but even though Helgeland’s script is not excessive, it’s important for moviegoers – especially those who might be showing 42 to young children - to be aware of the film’s unflinching depiction of the era.
As a result, 42 presents plenty of challenging material, but it’s all in service of a thought-provoking and evocative Jackie Robinson movie experience. Some storylines and characters are more nuanced than others – but overall, the film is a multi-faceted blend of exciting baseball scenes and captivating human rights drama. Whether stealing home plate or standing tall in the face persecution, Helgeland’s Robinson is an intriguing subject – worthy of wearing the iconic number 42.
If you’re still on the fence about 42, check out the trailer below:
42 runs 128 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language. Now playing in theaters.
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