Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 16, 2013)
If one wants to discuss the greatest athlete of the last 100 years, one can muster an exciting debate. If one wants to discuss the most important athlete of that period, though, the list becomes much shorter and comes with few realistic candidates.
Some may disagree, but I’d argue that Jackie Robinson tops that chart – and does so easily. 2013’s 42 considers Robinson’s case as it looks at aspects of his career.
42 starts in 1945 and lets us see that Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) wants to finally break the “race barrier” in Major League Baseball. He seeks to bring in a player from the Negro Leagues and decides that shortstop Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) boasts the talent and personality to blaze this trail. We follow Robinson’s controversial path to the Major Leagues as well as his relationship with wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie).
Over the decades since his death, Robinson has begun to turn more into a symbol than a man. 42 works to portray the person behind the legend and succeeds – usually.
A couple of concerns crop up through 42. First, it occasionally threatens to become a Jackie Robinson biopic without much Jackie Robinson. While the Dodger doesn’t vanish for long stretches of time, he sometimes takes a backseat to the drama that surrounds him. Some of this seems necessary to place events in the broader picture, but I think the film should’ve stayed more consistently focused on its title character.
This becomes especially true given how much time Rickey gets. Some of this makes sense, as Rickey obviously played a major role in the tale; without Rickey’s willingness to push boundaries, this story doesn’t exist. (In this configuration, at least; obviously an African-American would’ve eventually played in the Major Leagues, but we don’t know who or when.)
While Rickey plays a necessary role, I don’t think he needs to come to the fore as often as he does. Perhaps this becomes an acknowledgement of Ford’s casting; writer/director Brian Helgeland might’ve want major screen time for a major star.
Whatever Helgeland’s motivation might have been, an unfortunate consequence arises. Many movies that nominally focus on minority subjects end up concentrating on their majority enablers. That often becomes true here, and I think it detracts from Robinson’s achievements – especially because the film makes it look like Rickey dominates Robinson.
In truth, I don’t know the particulars of the Robinson/Rickey relationship. I don’t know how much encouragement the player needed from the owner to get through the ordeal Robinson endured.
I do feel that 42 threatens to leave us with the impression that Robinson was a hothead who never would’ve succeeded without the calming presence of his boss. I don’t think Helgeland intends this to be the case, but it’s how I view the result. We find multiple scenes in which Rickey acts as a soothing Obi-Wan to Robinson’s impetuous Luke.
Not that the film fails to show us how much misery Robinson went through, of course. Indeed, with its large focus on the 1947 season – Robinson’s first with the Dodgers – we find scene after scene in which the player goes through abuse, so we sense how difficult this would've been.
I wish 42 had played it less safe, though. In addition to the traditional way in which it concentrates on Rickey, 42 also feels like a throwback movie, which is good and bad. While it packs a nice emotional punch, it can be a bit trite.
Helgeland clearly channels his inner Spielberg, as 42 feels strongly influenced by that legendary director. From the camera style – with many slow zoom-ins – to the John Williams-esque score to the sentimental treatment of its characters – the movie channels Spielberg from start to finish.
That means the usual pros and cons that come with a Spielberg flick. 42 does give us a rousing piece that touches the audience, but it can be awfully manipulative at times. While I don’t think it needs to be “edgy” and I find its subdued period feel to work for the subject, I’d have liked the film to seem less… soft, I guess. The movie plays it safe so much of the time that it can feel watered down and artificial.
None of these comments mean I don’t like 42, as I think it offers fairly good entertainment. Despite whatever contrivances we find, the natural power of the story keeps us involved, and we care about the leads.
The actors do quite well in their roles. Boseman exhibits the necessary strength and center of focus as Robinson, while Ford delivers a nearly revelatory performance. Usually an action hero, Ford submerges himself in the role to a splendid degree. Often underappreciated as an actor, Ford delivers one of his all-time best performances; hopefully Oscar will remember him come award season.
42 reproduces its era well and can be a joy to watch just for the baseball segments. I love the sport and enjoy the ability to see it replicated on the big screen. When the movie indulges in those elements, I really like it.
The rest of the time, though, the tendency toward mythology and sentiment threatens to overwhelm 42. It tells an important tale and helps humanize Jackie Robinson, but I wish it’d focused more on a dramatic version of events without the trite, contrived feel we often get here.