Brian Helgeland’s “42” — which gets its name from the number Robinson wore after being drafted into the majors — is as inspiring as any inspirational sports movie you can name. (Well, maybe not “Brian’s Song,” but that movie had a disease to contend with. “42’s” scope is limited to racism.) Its hero, played with conviction by Chadwick Boseman, overcame many obstacles in the mid-1940s in his attempts to be accepted as the first African-American major leaguer, and the movie works double-time to convince you how difficult those obstacles were.
Without question, the movie is more about adversity than it is about baseball, but that’s understandable because Robinson’s struggles were always more rooted in other people’s bigotry than an inability to play the game. This is never more obvious than in scenes between Robinson and Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), who stands in the dugout taunting Robinson to the point where you wonder if Helgeland may have embellished just a titch for the sake of upping the dramatic tension.
Helgeland really does lay the racism element of Robinson’s rise to the top on a little too thick. We go into the movie knowing 1947 was a different time in the world, so we don’t need to be bashed over the head with it. But “42” makes great strides in making up for the potentially heavy-handed elements of Robinson’s early days in the league. For starters, he had one hell of a support system, in both his doting, beautiful wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) and in MLB exec Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who cared more about making money than he did about the people’s narrow-mindedness.
The movie is rife with platitudes (Branch to Jackie: “Like our savior, you gotta have the guts to turn the other cheek. Can you do it?”), but it also has a playful sense of humor, in the way it depicts Jackie’s affinity for stealing bases, and Helgeland also does well in the gorgeous recreation of the period (my favorite is the shot of dozens of Brooklyn Dodger fans flooding the gates of Ebbets Field on opening day). As for the performances, pretty much everyone knocks it out of the park.
“42” may go a little easy on Robinson by depicting him in too pious a light, but maybe that’s just how the real Robinson was. If it’s a less inspiring period baseball movie you’re after, there’s always that one about the loutish Ty Cobb.
★★★ out of ★★★★
Rated PG-13 for tons of hateful ethnic slurs. 128 minutes, 2013.
Director: Brian Helgeland. Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford.
Read all of Jesse Hoheisel’s reviews at AFistfulofPopcorn.com.