Jackie Robinson: “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”
Branch Rickey: “No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.
And so the legend of Jackie Robinson began. Played by Chadwick Boseman, Robinson was signed by the Montreal Royals - the AAA minor league team underneath the Brooklyn Dodgers - from the Negro Leagues. Given time on the field and support from his teammates and coaching staff, he ascended to the regular first team, but not without resistance within the Dodgers or Major League Baseball (MLB) at large. His signing with the Dodgers would make Robinson become the first African-American professional baseball player to play in the MLB.
42 tells a story superficially known, yet held in high regard, by most Americans. Diehard baseball fans (not this reviewer by any stretch of the imagination) will be quick to note the historical inaccuracies that inevitably come within any biographical picture. What saves 42 from becoming pre-summer critical fodder lies within the strength of its central and supporting performances and its crisp editing. It is a film of moments - some more effective than others - that at times feels disjointed and incomplete. This is probably because writer-director Brian Helgeland screenplay jumps immediately into Jackie’s minor league career, tossing us into a situation where a character’s character has already been constructed in events occurring offscreen, years before when the film is set. There are snippets of Robinson’s pre-Montreal and pre-Brooklyn life mentioned - his days at UCLA playing with whites in particular come to mind.
Chadwick Boseman is magnificent as the famed Dodger and is an uncanny likeness. A palette of emotions and inner demons are at Boseman’s disposal - he somehow manages to balance Jackie as the gentleman baseball player, the loving husband, and the privately wrathful individual he must have been. Jackie Robinson could not fight back against the monkey chants, the endless use of the n-word (used just as often here as in Django Unchained, but less gratuitously and more historically). If he had ever retaliated against those shrill voices, it would have spelled doom for his major league career and those who might have followed in his footsteps. To quote from Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey from the film: “Your enemy will be out in force. But you cannot meet him on his own low ground”. Jackie Robinson was not a complete saint, as seen in the moments where he is taking out his indescribable fury.
Speaking of Rickey, he is played by Harrison Ford in somewhat heavy makeup. With the way he disguises his voice, adjusts his gait, adopts certain facial tics, and other small details I can’t recollect, I found myself constantly thinking during Ford’s scenes: “Wait, this is Harrison Ford, right?”. I have never seen Harrison Ford disappear into a role as much as he did in 42.
The other supporting actor of note is Alan Tudyk having the unenviable job of portraying Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. During the Dodgers’ game with the Phillies, Chapman spews racist epithet after epithet, vulgarity after vulgarity in a stream of offensiveness that will shock many for a PG-13 movie. Tudyk’s cold hostility is atypical of the comedically-inclined actor.
Other competent performers include Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese , Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, and Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s wife Rachel (though her performance is a tad static) - Rachel Robinson herself gave her stamp of approval upon seeing the film. John C. McGinley is excellent in portraying Dodgers commentator Red Barber. Andre Holland as journalist Wendell Smith, however, is let down by writing and feels unnecessary to the story. In fact there are a few minor characters that feel consequential on first impression, but such premonitions end up being false alarms. The scene with Rachel Robinson and the late babysitter in particular is one such example of unresolved and unnecessary tension where there was none in the first place. Blame the editing (which saves itself during the baseball scenes) and writing here.
42 is an inspirational film that does what it is set out to do - it inspires. Regarding its subject content, thank goodness it at least it jumped that hurdle. A biopic of Jackie Robinson has been sorely overdue in American cinema but this effort is just good enough. There is plenty of speechifying and the film is unabashedly old-fashioned in its approach to the Robinson mythos. There is little nuance and concision to the snippets of his life put to the screen. The film’s disorganized structure and mistakes on narrative emphasis chip away at what could have been an even more moving, more historic cinematic experience.
Thus, 42 is a film that could have been. But what it is a sufficient, score-heavy (Mark Isham overcooks his product) film that barely manages to support its historically weighty subject matter - its writing not doing it any favors. Boseman and Ford carry this film on their back in two heroic efforts. Perhaps 42's release date played in its favor - it is, in my opinion, the best pre-summer film I have seen, as one should know pre-summer films generally reek of ineptitude. Maybe time will be kinder to it, but as it stands… 42's important narrative is moderately let down by pedestrian filmmaking.
My rating: 7/10
^ Based on my personal imdb rating.
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