Movie Review: 42 (2013)
As a baseball fan, I was excited to see 42 (2013), the biography pic on the life of the great Jackie Robinson. In a way, this one plays like a baseball game. There are moments of poignancy and high drama, excitement, and most certainly angst and pain, but it moves with the pace of a knuckleball (that’s a slow pitch for those of you who aren’t baseball fans).
At times, I felt like a right fielder standing in the outfield without much to do.
In the spring of 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides that he is going to hire a black baseball player to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Of course, in racially charged America of the 1940s, this decision doesn’t sit well with his subordinates, but since he’s the boss, he’s going to make it happen.
He’s asked why on several occasions, and he gives more than one satisfactory answer. First and foremost, it’s about money. He wants to win a World Series, and he knows the black players playing baseball in the segregated black baseball leagues are full of talent and they can help his team win it all. He also believes that times are changing, and he wants baseball to get with the program and move beyond its racist roots. Lastly, he cites a time when he had the opportunity to sign a black player in the past, and he blew it. He didn’t have the guts to do it then, and he has felt wrong about it ever since. Now is the time for Rickey to make amends.
Rickey decides upon Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) to be this historic black player. Rickey likes Robinson’s style of play, and he also likes his feisty attitude. He believes Robinson has what it takes to battle his way through what is sure to be a ferociously volatile situation.
Upon their first meeting, Rickey pulls no punches and tells Robinson exactly the way it is, that he’s going to have to take all that is dished out and more. Rickey tells Robinson he has to possess the courage not to fight back, and to let his abilities on the field do the talking. The better he plays, the more support he will gain from the fans.
Robinson agrees, and upon signing a contract with the Dodger’s minor league affiliate, quickly marries his sweetheart Rachel (Nicole Beharie). As expected, Robinson plays phenomenal baseball on the field and by 1947 joins the major league club, the Brooklyn Dodgers, to become the first black major league baseball player. Also as expected, Robinson receives death threats, has to endure racial slurs by fans and opposing teams and managers, gets booed regularly, and isn’t even supported by his own teammates.
But with Rickey urging him on, pushing him through the painful moments, telling him to keep playing baseball, Robinson persists, fights through all the adversity, and the rest as they say is history.
I liked 42 a lot, even though it plays like a glossy Hollywood movie. This film works best when dealing with its horrifyingly ugly moments of racism and inhumanity, and it’s these scenes that power 42 along.
The baseball scenes are decent, but surprisingly, there are not a lot of them. Every time Jackie Robinson takes the field in the movie, the film instantly gains energy. Watching him wreak havoc on the base paths, swiping bases with ease, hitting homeruns, making sensational catches in the field, makes for exciting cinema.
Considerable time is spent on Robinson’s relationship with his wife Rachel. Granted, the film shows them to be an admirable couple, but their story is simply not as interesting as what’s happening on the field.
The story is told by newspaper reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) whose struggles to overcome racism in the press corps mirror Robinson’s own. However, Smith isn’t a very interesting character.
42 soars when Jackie Robinson is on the screen, either when he’s dazzling the crowd on the field or fighting racists off it. Harrison Ford’s dynamic Branch Rickey also adds strong support. But whenever these two aren’t seen battling the racist forces against them, the film sags and plays like something you’d watch on the Biography channel.
Chadwick Boseman delivers a solid and courageous performance as Jackie Robinson. His is a study in self-control. When he’s forced to stand on the baseball field and listen to the horrible racial slurs yelled at him, and he knows he can’t say or do anything in retaliation, it’s so very painful to endure, and Boseman brings this pain to life.
He reminded me a lot of a young Denzel Washington, and I could easily have seen Denzel playing this role in his younger days. Boseman is also believable as a baseball player, as he has the athletic build for it.
It was incredibly fun watching Harrison Ford play Branch Rickey in this movie, and I have to admit it might have been my favorite performance here. Ford has never looked worse than he does in this movie, but that’s a good thing! He looks old and grizzled, as he should. Ford really brings Rickey to life, and he makes his motives for supporting Jackie Robinson believable. He’s also blessed with the best lines in the movie.
Nicole Beharie is beautiful as Rachel Robinson, and she makes Rachel a very likable character. However, the majority of Rachel’s scenes are away from all the turmoil, which sadly removes her from most of the drama.
Christopher Meloni from TV’s LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT and TRUE BLOOD adds fine support as manager Leo Durocher, who gets himself kicked out of major league baseball because he’s having an adulterous affair, on the eve of Robinson’s debut, forcing the Dodgers to start the season without a manager.
Durocher is replaced by Burt Shotton, played by Max Gail, who for us old guys, we remember as Maxwell Gail from the 1970s TV comedy BARNEY MILLER on which Gail was a regular.
Alan Tudyk wins the award for best scene stealing performance for his work as opposing manager Ben Chapman. The scene where he hurls racial slurs at Robinson’s head like 100 mile per hour fastballs is the most uncomfortable scene in the movie.
42 was written and directed by Brian Helgeland. Helgeland has only directed a handful of movies, but he has a ton of writing credits, including having written the screenplays for A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4 (1988), L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997), and MYSTIC RIVER (2003) to name just a few. Some of the movies he’s written I’ve really liked, and some others not so much.
His script here for 42 is okay. The angst-ridden scenes of racial turmoil are excellent. They are the best part of the movie. The baseball scenes are also very good. But when the movie focuses on background drama – Jackie’s marriage, the birth of his son, how his teammates deal with all that’s going on, and so forth- it slumps a bit.
The movie also could have used some humor. There’s a funny scene where one of Robinson’s teammates tries to convince him that it’s okay to shower with the other guys, and it does a lot to ease the tension. More scenes like this would have helped.
I liked 42 very much. It tells an important story in American history, and it’s a story that is bigger than the game of baseball.
That being said, to use a baseball analogy, 42 doesn’t swing for the fences. It’s not trying to hit a homerun. Instead, like Jackie Robinson, it seems content to get to first base, and then steal its way around the diamond, one base at a time, until it slides home.