Film Review 42: The True Story of an American Legend

Jackie Robinson biopic has winning performances and zero errors

click to enlarge In 42, Harrison Ford is Dodgers manager Branch Rickey to Chadwick Boseman’s Jackie Robinson.
In 42, Harrison Ford is Dodgers manager Branch Rickey to Chadwick Boseman’s Jackie Robinson.

42: The True Story of an American Legend| B


Baseball is a game of tradition, ritual and, most of all, numbers; from fluctuating outfield dimensions and batting averages to home run records, numbers are all important on the diamond. For eight decades, however, there was one inviolable number that did not waver: 0. That was the number of African-Americans allowed to compete in the major leagues, and that unwritten but rigorously enforced “color line” was as much a part of the game as the bunt, the walk or the suicide squeeze. This widely accepted form of segregation remained in place from the 1880s until 1946, when formidable Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (played here by a feisty Harrison Ford) chose to force the issue by hiring a young standout negro league infielder named Jack Roosevelt Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). He donned number 42 for the Dodgers and proved to be exactly the right man for the job; a sturdy, stoic and gifted athlete, Robinson had a knack for making the impossible look effortless.

The work of writer-director Brian Helgeland (he penned L.A Confidential), 42 is a solid, workmanlike biopic that trudges along without an excess of nuance, but with a commitment to the notion that ennobling sentiment and entertainment can co-exist. This is a handsome, competent piece of mainstream filmmaking, as rich in period detail and underdog uplift as other recent historical sports biopics, such as Cinderella Man and Seabuscuit, though this one has weightier issues to deal with. Race is the one demon that never really rests in this nation’s soul, but the enormity of the institutional, nationwide bigotry of the past may seem like a dark fantasy to modern eyes. As he made his way through the Dodgers organization, from the Montreal farm club to the big leagues, Jackie was subject to an endless stream of insults, intimidation, death threats and inside fastballs aimed at his noggin. There was even pushback from Jackie’s own teammates, who circulated a petition calling for his ouster, though Rickey flatly rejected it.

One mitigating factor was Robinson’s friendship with Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), the Dodgers’ humble hall of fame shortstop. When the team rolled into Cincinnati, a virtual home game for the Louisville-raised Reese, the white Pee Wee took the opportunity to publicly embrace Jackie in front of a hostile crowd, a move that stunned the critics into silence.

Through it all Robinson displayed resilience, patience and mettle, virtues that the intense Boseman expresses easily. It’s a shame that he’s hamstrung by such a saintly role, and that we don’t delve deeper into the man’s complex personality. It also would have been nice if Jackie’s beloved wife Rae (Nicole Behaire), a civil rights figure in her own right, had a bit more to do than coo and fret.

One cast member free to ham it up is Harrison Ford, who, finally allowed to act his age, blusters and grumbles with relish. He’s a hoot as Rickey, whose religious convictions played a major role in his decisions but was also just a tough old son of a bitch who resented being told what to do and took obvious joy in agitating the cowards and fools who lined up to oppose the sport’s integration at every turn.

Robinson had to be better than the competition in every way, and the movie about him occasionally seems to be overly concerned with establishing the legend, rather than simply laying out the facts. Still, even though it feels like hoopla, there is no possible way to oversell Robinson’s nobility: No athlete, and precious few other American citizens, ever shouldered a heavier burden, or did it with as much grace.

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