The heroism Jackie Robinson displayed as the first black baseball player in the major leagues powers the flawed but occasionally stirring biopic 42. Look closer, and you’ll see not only a testament to the power of faith but a primer on how conservatives view racial matters.
It’s about the content of a person’s character, not the shade of his or her skin, something the new film establishes early and holds firm as Robinson’s first year in the big leagues unfolds.
Chadwick Boseman is Jackie Robinson, the gifted Negro League star chosen by Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to shatter baseball’s color barrier. The move was almost unthinkable at the time, but the crusty baseball exec refused to back down.
He chose Jackie for his athleticism, his youth and his solid character. Besides, both men believed in the Good Book, and that meant plenty to Branch.
“Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist. Bring him here.”
Easier said than done. Jackie is inundated with hate–from the fans, other players and even his teammates. Branch refuses to back down, and slowly Jackie’s baseball skills and ability to withstand verbal punishment win over both the crowds and his fellow Dodgers.
The movie opens with the embarrassingly obvious statement, “based on a true story,” as if we’ve never heard of a fellow named Jackie Robinson before. It’s a bad omen, and it’s followed up by a series of clunky scenes you might find in a made-for-TV movie treatment.
Boseman and Ford refuse to let those sequences define their performances or the movie as a whole. Boseman conveys Jackie’s athletic prowess and personal grace, lending his skimpily written scenes with his on-screen wife (Nicole Beharie) a dignity befitting a world class hero.
Ford, acknowledging his advanced age for the first time on screen, makes Branch a lovable eccentric, a baseball prophet who says he’s only thinking about money when he signed Jackie to a contract. The truth gives 42 its moist poignant sequence.
Writer/director Brian Helgeland (the screenwriter of Mystic River) opens the baseball scenes up to those who never watched so much as an inning, explaining what a balk is and otherwise taking an obvious path to Jackie’s greatness on the diamond. You’ll predict every stolen base, home run and scorching double.
The narrative doesn’t skimp on the racism pulsing through post-war America, something encapsulated by the true story of Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk). The former Firefly star gives 42 its grandiose villain, a thug so proud of his ignorance he wants the whole world to witness it.
Jackie Robinson’s life story is so pure, so powerful that any film daring to trace its path is bound to entertain and inspire. The new film 42 does both, even when it descends into cliche and forces Ford to depict Branch at times in a cartoonish fashion.
The real Jackie Robinson deserves a great biopic, the kind that shows us the man behind the heroism and captures the glory of what he accomplished both on and off the field. 42 never gets close, but it reminds us that faith and inner strength helped change the game of baseball for the better.