Film Review – 42
There have been a lot of important events in the history of sports, but the biggest and also one of the significant events in American history, the breaking of the color barrier, is a story that needs to be told. Thanks to Academy Award-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland of L.A. Confidential, it is coming to the screen once again in 42. This isn’t the first time a movie has been dedicated to Jackie Robinson; in fact, Robinson himself starred in The Jackie Robinson Story back in 1950. But enough time has passed that we have younger generations that don’t know about him or don’t remember the challenge in overcoming the color barrier.
It is amazing to sit back and look at how many great baseball films there are (The Natural, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own, etc). It’s a bit of a challenge for a new film to find a place amongst the upper echelon of baseball films. Thankfully, 42 has a very powerful card in its favor—not only is it based on an amazing story, it is based on a true story. It follows Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) as he is brought from the Negro Leagues into the Brooklyn Dodgers organization by team executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). While not an outright violation of any law, the move created a wave of backlash for breaking unwritten codes and going against what was considered the acceptable way of life at the time. The story is both an uplifting tale of overcoming the odds as well as a painful reminder of how misguided our nation has been at times (and unfortunately continues to be). While it is unlikely that 42 will displace any of the most classic movies, it is good enough to hold its own and be considered one of the better ones.
As a screenwriter, Brian Helgeland has a pretty prolific career, with hits such as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River. As a director, his career is a bit less cut and dry. As much as I love Payback, it isn’t considered a classic, and his other works, A Knight’s Tale and The Order (both starring Heath Ledger), had even less success, both critically and commercially. The story in 42 hits all the important points you would like a film like this to hit, but it just doesn’t feel like a smooth flow. It feels like a series of scenes conceived to convey a message. For a film about baseball, it isn’t particularly dynamic, and spends a lot of time in small scenes of people chatting.
Boseman had a very big challenge in playing a real legend, and he does an exceptional job. I’m not familiar with his work, but he feels completely natural in the role and does an excellent job of keeping the ship on course. The character’s relationship with his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) is one of the best parts of the movie, as their chemistry is a lot of fun and very engaging. Boseman’s biggest challenge is trying to win over the audience as Robinson wins over his teammates, and he has the charisma to make that happen. The supporting cast is largely very excellent, particularly Robinson’s teammates (Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Jesse Luken) and his coach (Christopher Meloni), though it does feel like there were changes made for the purpose of helping build dramatic tension—for example, Robinson’s relationship with Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) is dramatically downplayed and used largely as a means to show Robinson’s acceptance toward the end.
The film can’t be discussed without mentioning Ford’s role as Branch Rickey, the man willing to go against cultural norms and bring Robinson to the majors. Rickey is certainly important in the story of breaking of the color barrier and needs to be included, but while Ford’s character might be historically accurate, his performance is going to polarize people as to whether it hits the right notes or is too much of a cliché. I didn’t mind the part, but I found Ford to be distracting; in what is otherwise an engrossing historical drama, he would take me out of the flow of the story. The film spends so much time painting Branch Rickey as a hero it at times feels like a caricature, as if it is his movie, not Robinson’s. Sure, he played a significant role, but the story I came to see was Jackie Robinson’s.
Regardless of successes and failures, 42 is a movie everyone should see. It puts the history of America into context for a lot of people, particularly those born since the end of segregation. It does a good job of highlighting just how great of a challenge Jackie Robinson overcame, and what that truly means to America and sports. The film is a great introduction to the subject of Robinson, but there is still much to learn about end of the color barrier, since other players such as Larry Doby, who followed Jackie Robinson’s lead just three months later, have largely been forgotten by history.
Final Grade: B