Director: Brian Helgeland
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie
Running Time: 128 minutes
Jackie Robinson will always be known as the first African American to play in Major League Baseball, but many seem to forget that he was also a damn good player. In a ten year career, he was a 6-time All-Star, an MVP winner, Rookie of the Year, and a World Series champion. In the new biopic, 42, his excellent career is only glossed over in favor of taking a look at his tumultuous first season.
First, we begin in 1945. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is looking to improve his team and comes up with an unfathomable idea — why not sign a talented African American player? While there was no rule against letting minorities play Major League Baseball, there was an unwritten code that every team adhered by. After taking a look at several of the big names in the Negro leagues — including Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige — Rickey settles on the then 26-year-old Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), citing his strong demeanor and ability to withstand verbal abuse.
Jackie, accompanied by his lovely wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), spends a season in the minor leagues before hitting the majors in 1947. As soon as he steps on the field on Opening Day, Jackie is surrounded by reporters. This is commonplace, as is the racist heckling from the crowd, written death threats and even petitions against him from his own teammates. It’s hard to believe that just over 60 years ago, the U.S. was so heavily segregated. Toilets, water fountains and even baseball stadiums were divided, with different lines for “whites” and “colored” patrons.
Many of the character interactions in this film are downright disgusting, and sadly enough, most of them actually happened. The most notorious example is when Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) attempts to rattle Robinson while he’s at the plate by spewing racial epithets at him over and over again. Chapman is relentless, and this is when Jackie reaches his breaking point. Is he really ready to do this? Can he continue to handle all of the pressure bestowed upon him as MLB’s first African American player, essentially a trailblazing pioneer? Of course, we know the answer to this.
It’s somewhat disappointing that 42 only focuses on Jackie’s first season, simply because he had an impressive career with many noteworthy moments. This makes sense from a film perspective since it gives director Brian Helgeland a chance to portray Robinson in the brightest possible light (which I have no complaints about), but it still feels like there is just so much more to tell.
The film is given the full Hollywood treatment with tried-and-true cliches, dramatic music and a number of heavy-handed scenes (I half-expected Steven Spielberg’s name to be attached to the project), and it concludes with notes on what later happened to Jackie and a select few teammates. While I was fully expecting this “where did they go?” epilogue, it was bizarre to see notes given on players who weren’t even named in the film. Much of the supporting cast (re: teammates) are briefly acknowledged by a first name, if we’re lucky, and they all just blur together. While it’s nice to know Ralph Branca played for three different teams in his career, why should the audience care when he was given maybe a few lines in the movie?
Regardless of these head-scratching end notes, it should be stated that the entire cast did a hell of a job with their roles. Chadwick Boseman perfectly nails Jackie’s baseball mannerisms, and Harrison Ford hits one out of the park with his scenery-chewing performance as the cigar-chomping old codger running the Dodgers. An impressive array of character actors fills out the supporting cast, led by John C. McGinley as the legendary announcer, Red Barber, and Alan Tudyk as the racist manager, Ben Chapman.
42 is a serviceable biopic, and it hits all of the proper emotional notes. It is an important film, one that deserves to be seen, even though it may be too “Hollywood” for its own good. Jackie Robinson’s legacy is undeniable, and at the very least this film has deservedly brought him back into the forefront.