“42” is far from the first movie to explore racial tensions in sports. We’ve seen this subject depicted in other good films like “Remember the Titans” and “Glory Road.” There are plenty of recognizable figures on display here, such as the underdog nobody believed in, the one man willing to take a chance on that underdog, and the ignorant antagonists that wish to see that underdog fail. Familiarity aside, though, “42” executes just about everything wonderfully. This is a good-hearted picture, carried by sincere performances and passionate direction. Not only is it an inspiring story about overcoming prejudice, but an all around rousing baseball movie too.
It’s the late 1940s and African Americans have been limited to only playing in Negro league baseball. That is until Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager played by Harrison Ford, decides to break the color barrier and sign a black man to the team. Rickey selects a young shortstop from the Kansas City Monarchs by the name of Jackie Robinson. In 1950, the real life Jackie Robinson played himself in “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Here, newcomer Chadwick Boseman portrays the legendary ballplayer. Up front, Rickey tells Robinson he’s going to face oppression from people in the crowds, the opposing teams, and his fellow teammates. What’s worse, he’ll have to accept this cruel slander without retaliating. Robinson steps up to the plate, saying that he has the guts not to fight back.
This is a real breakthrough performance for Boseman, who up until now has only done minor supporting roles in television and movies. He strikes just the right note as Robinson, creating a man who has had a rough life, but is still very playful, charming, and loving. Even when a racist pitcher taunts Robinson, he still strives to do his best and comes out on top with a smile. That’s not to say Robinson didn’t have his moments of weakness and defeat. There’s an especially powerful scene in which Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, played by Alan Tudyk, bombards Robinson on the field with hateful slurs. Although Robinson restrains from punching Chapman out, he immediately breaks down upon exiting the field, shattering his wooded bat to pieces.
In addition to Boseman’s star-making turn as a leading man, “42” is also an excellent ensemble piece. We get great work from Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s devoted, fearless wife, Christopher Meloni as the hard as nails Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, Andre Holland as a black journalist determined to protect Robinson, and John C. McGinley as a soft-spoken broadcast commentator named Red Barber. The only actor that’s a tad uneven is Ford as Branch Rickey. At first his performance comes off as almost cartoonish with his gruff voice and humongous eyebrows. As the picture goes on, though, Ford nicely settles into the role and becomes more believable. The rapport Rickey shares with Robinson is also quite poignant. On one hand, Rickey views Robinson as a way to make it to the World Series. On the other hand, he also views Robinson as a human being and wants to see him succeed.
The film was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who won a screen writing Oscar for “L.A. Confidential.” If there’s one downside to his uplifting film, it’s that maybe “42” could have been even longer. Although the narrative only focuses on Robinson’s time in the minor leagues and his rookie year in the major leagues, “42” often jumps around large periods of time while some characters occasionally just disappearing. The ending in particular, while crowd-pleasing, feels somewhat abrupt. For a story like this to reach its full potential, it might have worked better as a five-hour miniseries. Then again, the same could be said about a lot of modern biopics. For what we do get, “42” hits it out of the park with laughs, honesty, and a widespread, yet still very relevant, moral.