If ever a film had a near impossible legacy to live up to, it’s 42. After all, when tackling the sports mythos of Jackie Robinson and the color barrier in baseball, there are going to be critics on either side. Some will argue accuracy. Others will parse out particular moments. Then there will be the varied voices of adulation who will allow nothing short of Gospel spoken about this true American hero. In the end, no side wins, basically because no one film can completely contain the import of what Robinson, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, did that tempestuous summer of 1948. Try as it might, this is a movie of iconography instead of insight, a collection of cultural talking points vs. a true examination of the social zeitgeist at the time and the man at the center of it.
World War II is over and Branch Rickey(Harrison Ford) of the Brooklyn Dodgers wants to shake things up. Noting the number of African Americans who served our nation well, along with the potential revenue from fans flocking to the existing Negro League, he wants to hire the first black player in the history of the national pastime. Luck falls on Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), selected to take the prejudicial brunt for the sake of the sport the country loves. At first, no one accepts him. Even as he excels, he faces constant bigotry and bias. But as he proves his skills, and with support from his managers Leo Durocher (Chris Meloni) and Burt Shotton (Max Gail), as well as players Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater), he becomes a sensation, and a symbol for a growing civil rights movement in America.
The biggest problem 42 faces sits right at the center of everything — on Jackie Robinson himself. Branch Rickey was a character, and he is played as such. So was Leo Durocher, Pee Wee Reese, and, perhaps most memorably, a horrifically racist Ben Chapman. But Robinson is treated as an untouchable totem, an emblem unblemished by anything other than an instinctual rage against those who determine his value based on the color of his skin. He’s never see outside “simmering anger” mode, made even more bland by the performance from Boseman. He looks the part, but never becomes the man… and that is this film’s Achilles Heel. By turning Jackie Robinson into a mere symbol, writer/director Brian Helgeland shuts out any depth or personality development. Number 42 starts off as defiant if apprehensive, and never changes for two full hours.
Certainly there are other worthwhile elements here. Ford, free from his popcorn hero days of the ’80s and ’90s, infuses Rickey with a kind of kooky Zen philosophizing that is a joy to watch. He steals every scene he is in. Similarly, many of the supporting players here are fleshed out in ways that our lead is not. Also, the plot only focuses on Robinson’s run up to the 1949 pennant, so we get very little of his home life, interests outside of sports (seeing him star as himself in 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story would have been intriguing), or later influence. It’s as if Helgeland assumes we know all this, and is merely skipping to the moment when baseball went from color fixated to (partially) color blind. Those sequences do work (Pee Wee Reese embracing his teammate during an ugly incident in Cincinnati, Chapman’s eventual comeuppance) but they are few and far between.
As a history lesson enlivened by the typical cinematic tricks, 42 is just fine. If you want something more than a mild mainstream biopic, you will have to look elsewhere. There is more to Jackie Robinson’s story than what up on the screen. Sadly, no mere movie could do his legacy justice.