"42" is a film that couldn't ever have been much worse than "good" - if only because the actual story of Jackie Robinson would be impossible to portray without stumbling onto at least a few amazing moments. He was that big of a man, that much of a symbol, that profound a change-agent ensconced in Dodger blue. In real life, this iconic American tale encapsulated the tumult of race relations after World War 2, and how America's desire for excellence eventually, slowly, won out over the fear of "the other". Unfortunately, though we do indeed get a few of those amazing moments, the film doesn't always reach the level of tremendous, instead playing out as largely entertaining, if also somewhat formulaic. "42" could have a been a true contender for the "best baseball movie ever" crown, but it never quite grabs the mantle, instead touching home plate as a solid, if occasionally scattered, biopic.
In 1946 the world was changing, attitudes and cultural perspectives were shifting, and Jackie Robinson was the star of that show. He faced pure hatred, from complete strangers, the likes of which you wouldn't wish upon your worst enemy, and he faced down a good old boy network that clung to unwritten rules and institutional discrimination. The owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decided that money and winning were far more important than keeping baseball segregated, but he needed a man who would be able to withstand the heaping amounts of abuse that were sure to pour down on the first African American ballplayer.
Enter Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a World War 2 veteran playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, clearly talented, but even more importantly, possessing an emotional core that would not wilt under direct fire. Jackie Robinson was Branch Rickey's chose ambassador for his entire ethnicity, the hopes of a brighter future pinned squarely upon his chest.
"42" is the story of those first few seasons, 1946 and 1947, and the journey The Dodgers, Branch Rickey, and Jackie Robinson embarked upon. Strong performances from Chadwick Boseman (Robinson) and Harrison Ford (Rickey) carry the film through its 128-minute running time, though the efforts of Lucas Black (as Pee Wee Reese) and Christopher Merloni (as manager Leo Durocher) must be lauded as well. What "42" does extremely well is set the tone of the time period, where the majority of people in certain regions were heavily opposed to the idea of a non-white baseball player, mightily invested in the all-white power structure of the era. The first guy through the door always takes the biggest wallop, and "42" does well to show the constant trials Robinson faced in his quest for racial equality.
Where "42" has a much tougher time is with character development, editing, and the overall unevenness of the transitions between scenes. Many of the Brooklyn Dodger players are given a few minutes of screen time, but it's difficult to say who is who, and whether or not they are one of the impediments or supporters of Jackie Robinson's cause. In this case, trying to make "42" about everyone left it wanting and needing more Jackie Robinson (along with more straightforward baseball scenes). Jackie Robinson's wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie) is also given her due credit, which is an sum positive, but there are moments where it feels perfunctory, as opposed to in service of the story.
A massive detriment to the film is T.R. Knight's take on assistant Harold Parrott. He's comically underused in the opening half of the film, and then somehow relied upon to carry major arcs during the second act, though we really have no idea about the context of the character. The script really stumbled in this area, showing us a voiceless man for an hour and then pivoting him toward full-on supporting actor near the culmination of the film.
There are some majestic moments woven into the fabric of "42" as well, there's a scene between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese that's as good as anything you'll see this year. Additionally, the announcer for the Dodgers, Red Barber (John G. McGinley) is a constant delight with his understated old-timer phrasing, any time he's providing commentary is extremely compelling. Sadly, real life seems to have not provided much of a story arc for "42" to attach itself to, but writer/director Brian Helgeland does his best to infuse tension where he can. The old ballparks, the uniforms, and the crowds are all lovingly rendered with an admirable authenticity, and it is on the field that "42" clearly has the most momentum.
To think back of the pressure Jackie Robinson must have faced with every interaction, the reputation of an entire race, however unfairly, placed upon his broad shoulders, is to recognize a modern day saint. One misstep, one wrong move, and Jackie would have single-handedly set race relations in the country back a decade, because Jackie Robinson wasn't just fighting for himself, he was wrestling for the very soul of America. In that sense, no movie could accurately tell his story, because there aren't scripts that big, shots that crisp, or scenes that epic. "42" is a nice movie, a kind and decent film, but it's not something that adds to Robinson's legacy in any meaningful way. Perhaps that's for the best, for this is an occasion where real life was infinitely more compelling than the attempt to capture it on the big screen.
Laremy wrote the book on film criticism and adores the Boston Red Sox.