It’s darn near impossible to overstate the impact that Jackie Robinson had, not only on the game of baseball, but on the human race as a whole. The first black player in the Major Leagues blazed new ground, fully twenty years before the Civil Rights Movement ended (on paper, anyway) in 1968.
His story has been told before (including by Robinson himself, who starred in his own biopic, 1950’s excellent The Jackie Robinson Story), and annually on April 15 every single pro player wears Robinson’s #42 in commemoration of the day he made his Major League debut; his number is the only one that has been retired by every team. Now writer Brian Helgeland (who won the Oscar for 1997’s L.A. Confidential) is (re-)introducing Robinson in 42.
Directing his own screenplay, Helgeland has created a riveting, powerful bio-pic of one of the most iconic figures of the past 100 years, and though it would be impossible for the movie to reach the pantheon status its subject did, it more than accomplishes its task of telling a great story about a great man.
The relatively unknown Chadwick Boseman (seen a few years ago in bit parts on TV’s Fringe and Justified) steps into the role and delivers one of the more memorable performances of the year so far. The quiet calm, his boyish good looks, and the stoic determination that he brings to the role all do great justice to a man who Time named to its list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
42 focuses exclusively on only two years in Robinson’s life. While a member of the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, he gets a call from Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who invites him to join the organization– first as a player on the International League Montreal Royals in 1946 and then on the parent club in 1947.
Along the way, Robinson comes face to face with racism, bigotry, and unfathomable ignorance– the worst of which comes via Alan Tudyk (TV’s Suburgatory), whose chilling performance as racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman makes the much-maligned Django Unchained seem almost tame by comparison. But Robinson also has to overcome hatred from bleacher bums, sports writers, and even some of his own teammates.
Boseman’s rock-solid, lock-jawed performance is more than enough to make 42 worthwhile, but Ford’s turn as crusty ol’ Rickey takes it to a new level. Some of the supporting roles get lost, though (or never fully fleshed out), but high marks go to Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s wife, Lucas Black as teammate Pee Wee Reese, and John C. McGinley as Dodgers announcer Red Barber.
Despite the heavy subject matter, 42 ultimately comes off more like a Disney-fied version of Robinson’s life (not unlike the aforementioned The Jackie Robinson Story). But for a few isolated moments, it doesn’t carry the dramatic weight of, say, Mississippi Burning or Malcolm X, and, in all fairness, that’s a good thing. The end result is film much more accessible to all audiences, including the younger crowd (provided, I would think, there’s a pre- and post-movie sit-down).
Heroes, especially those of Robinson’s stature and relevance, need to have their story told again and again, and 42 does the man justice many times over.