‘42’ Is An Old-Fashioned Story Of An American Legend

42: 3 ½ out of 5

Jackie Robinson:  Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?
Branch Rickey:  No, I need a player with guts enough not to fight back.

I don’t acknowledge this very often, but I like to bookend my reviews with quotes from the film.  Sometimes they sum up the film in a sense and other times they are just quotes I enjoyed the most.  The two I have chosen for 42, a film that chronicles the introduction of Jackie Robinson into Major League Baseball, are featured in the film, but are also actual quotes from the men who said them.  They are not the most inspiring words I have ever read, but 42 also isn’t the most inspiring movie I have ever seen.  Regardless, it is a film that I have wanted to see, as the subject matter is important.  While the film is only good, as opposed to great, it is occasionally quite moving, well made and acted, and a fitting tribute for a man who mainly just wanted to play baseball.

As stated, this is a film about Jackie Robinson’s introduction into Major League Baseball, making him the first black player to break the baseball color line.  Beginning in 1945, the film introduces us to Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who decides to scout the Negro leagues for a possible new addition to the Dodgers’ roster.  Rickey eventually settles on Robinson, first bringing him onto Brooklyn’s International League team, the Montreal Royals, before eventually having him play for the Dodgers.  Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, is a strong player, who is forced to keep his temper in check, as he deals with many who oppose and scoff at the idea of a person of color playing on the same field as white players.

The film also stars Nicole Beharie, as Rachel Isum, Robinson’s loving wife; Andre Holland as Wendell Smith, a black writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, who befriended and supported Robinson; Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, the Dodger’s no-nonsense manager; Lucas Black and Hamish Linklater as Pee Wee Reese and Ralph Branca, players on the Dodgers, who were accepting of Robinson; John C. McGinley as Red Barber, the soft-spoken sportscaster for the Dodgers; and nice guy Alan Tudyk as the horribly racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.

42 was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who won an Oscar for adapting L.A. Confidential and had directed a few films in his own right.  Putting the story of Jackie Robinson on screen has him working in very traditional territory and my main issue with the film is how broad it plays.  I found the film to certainly be an acceptable portrayal of this man’s story, but moments where the film truly shines are undercut by how the story is presented as a whole, which is to say that it is very earnest and straightforward, without establishing more depth to its central character.

As Robinson, I found Boseman to be quite good with what he was given.  Given that Robinson was tasked with not bursting into anger and settling scores physically, no matter the hurtful words thrown at him, I was impressed by the amount of emoting one could see on Boseman’s face and in his general performance, when dealing with these scenarios depicted to be just as uncomfortable for the audience.  I can also say that the casting of Boseman in general, as opposed to a more established black actor (the very talented Anthony Mackie leaps to mind), was a decision I was quite pleased by as well, as it made Robinson a better blank slate to come to understand, with less pre-conceived notions about the actor playing him.  However, coming to understand Robinson is the issue that the movie faces.  

The movie makes its goal quite clear and does not do a whole lot to challenge what we see in Robinson.  We know he is a good player, it is clear that he is a good man, and we know that he is going through a lot during all of this, but the film does not really allow us to delve into what is going on in his mind.  I would have liked to have learned more about what this burden meant to Robinson.  It would have been nice to understand if there was more than just loving comfort and reassurance of confidence from his wife, which kept him going when things were at their worst.  Perhaps these are areas explored in a longer cut of the film, but what we have is less of an exploration of who the man is and more of a presentation of the idea of him.

Putting that aside, the film features solid work from the other members of the cast.  Harrison Ford is better than I have seen him in quite some time, playing a role that could have easily earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, were the film to have been released around the World Series instead of during the opening days of baseball season.  While he is very much playing off his accent and eyebrows and relies on some strong one-liners, it does not take much to see what Ford brings to the role of Branch Rickey.  Similarly, Christopher Meloni gets just enough to do as Leo Durocher, who makes being a hardass likable.  

On the opposite end of the likable spectrum, there is Alan Tudyk serving as the film’s villain, in a sense, as he is the physical representation of all that is shameful about the treatment of Robinson and men and women like him.  The added value is that Tudyk’s character, Ben Chapman, has the displeasure of being true to life.  The depiction of racism throughout this film is not played off to be anything but horrible and while there is certainly no way around expressing that, the film is not overdoing this in anyway, beyond drawing attention to something that people already know to be wrong.

In reference to other key performances, I do wish we got to see more of Wendell Smith’s relationship to Robinson.  While seeing Ford, as well as the other white players on the team communicate with Robinson and acknowledge where they stand on the whole issue via dialogue that is sometimes too earnest and on the nose, having more of Smith in this film (who is played quite well by Andre Holland) could have given us more in return from Robinson, who I have already described as being less developed as a character than I would have liked.  Last thought on the actors; I would be remiss if I were not to mention John C. McGinley’s wonderful take on Red Barber, who had a way with words and supplies a lot of fun in the film, given how tense some of the baseball scenes are made to be.

I could make note of the film’ s technical merits, but suffice it to say that 42 looks about as good as expected, which is in no way surprising, given that this is a fairly well-budgeted studio film.  The period details are quite apparent and the look of the film is not distracting like in J. Edgar nor is it as intimate like Lincoln.  I don’t know what baseball stadium looked like what during those times, but the designs are convincing enough and Don Burgess does a fine job with the cinematography of the feature as a whole.  I would only question Mark Isham’s dramatic score that becomes a bit to triumphant in its climactic beats, except that the film has already placed itself into old-fashioned territory, given the traditional nature of this biopic.

There is a desire in me and many, I am sure, to have wish they could have seen the ultimate Jackie Robinson film.  42 does not meet that level of importance, as the filmmaking may be solid, but the story we are presented with misses the mark on really delivering a great film.  However, 42 is still a good film, with moments where it is quite rousing.  What it lacks in ambition to present a more fascinating character study, rather than an observance of a noble experiment on film, it gains in old-fashioned earnestness and a well-meaning spirit anchored by some solid performances.  Students may have to research and write a report on Jackie Robinson to really understand his importance, but 42 would serve as a nice, entertaining break afterward.  For everyone else, the pitch for this film led to at least a double.

Leo Durocher:  I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like an f***in' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.

Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.


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