There's an easy criticism to make of 42, the new biopic of MLB and civil-rights pioneer Jackie Robinson. It might be said that even in this version of the story, so much better as a film than the 1950 "The Jackie Robinson Story" which starred the man himself, Robinson comes off as something less than a fully-realized character. He is an uncomplicated hero, tested to be sure, but ultimately too good and too much on the right side of history too fail. Thus, writer-director Brian Helgeland might be accused of draining the life-blood from the man and presenting the myth, unexamined and unexplored.
But really, if anyone deserves a hagiography, it might be Robinson, who took unfathomable abuse from opposing players and fans on his way to proving that the black man could make it in white baseball. Indeed, the film's spirit seems designed to match the purpose of Branch Rickey's great experiment in bringing Robinson to Brooklyn. Rickey, played with a gruff, gravely nature by Harrison Ford, knew that the first player to break the color barrier had to be such a good player and such a perfect gentleman that he could eventually win admiration from supporters and begrudging respect from detractors and bigots. Whatever Robinson was really like, and he was certainly a great man, he was convincing enough as a hero that he lead the charge of black players that finally democratized America's pastime.
So if we can forgive any movie its orchestral swells, its Christ-like hero, and its sentimentalism, this is the movie to forgive.
Not to mention that there are other charms to 42 that make it a good if not great baseball movie, sure to be well-regarded by fans of the sport and non-fans alike. Newcomer Chadwick Boseman does a fine impersonation of the ballplayer's rhythms and movements. He also has some genuinely tender moments with Nicole Beharie's Rachel Robinson. It takes a little while to get used to Harrison Ford's voice, but once you do you realize what a fine performance he's giving as a businessman trying to forge a legacy for himself and repair some of his past wrongs.
Quite often sports movies are made by people without much connection or interest in the game, and their sloppy mistakes can alienate the serious fan. But 42 is relatively clean on this account, and excellently captures the joy of seeing a master base-runner such as Robinson create havoc on the basepaths. I also appreciated the way Helgeland would often film a pitch coming at Robinson, showing you the lethal force that a fastball can possess.
42 is largely about 1947, Robinson's first season with the Dodgers, a season of conflict and tension which is portrayed most effectively in the Dodger lockerroom and dugout, where Robinson's white teammates struggle to accept him. Whether it's the southerners who circulate a petition threatening to strike if Robinson is not released, or the other white Dodgers who just want to play baseball and not deal with the complicated problems of race-relations, 42 does an excellent job showing a team winning despite a near-crisis on its hands. In particular, Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, Jesse Luken as Eddie Stanky, and Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese were standouts.
The film's best scene is also its most disturbing, as Phillies' manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) delights in shouting horrid epithets while Robinson is at the plate, and Robinson struggles to maintain his focus and keep his promise not to fight back. Boseman's portrayal of near-defeat and heartbreak in the clubhouse after this at-bat is riveting and heart-rending.
Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, but that's because everyone should. If 42 helps ensure that people will hear his story in the future, it will have done something well worth doing.