PLOT: The true story of Jackie Robinson's (Chadwick Boseman) first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, where- with the help of owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) – he became the first African-American player to cross the color line.
REVIEW: Jackie Robinson's career with the Dodgers is without a doubt one of the all-time great sport stories. It's hard to imagine a world where black ballplayers were confined to playing in the so-called “Negro Leagues” but sure enough, before Robinson, that's how it was. Before the civil rights movement picked up steam in the sixties, Robinson was already breaking down color barriers, and it's surprising that it's taken this long for Hollywood to step up to the plate and give Robinson the big Hollywood biopic he deserves (although it's worth remembering that Robinson actually played himself in the low-budget 1950 b-movie, THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY).
How does 42 fare? Not bad actually, although I'd wager there's a far better film to be made about Robinson's life than what we get here. Coming from Brian Helgeland, who not only wrote but also directed (his fourth as director, following PAYBACK, A KNIGHT'S TALE and THE ORDER), 42 is your typical big Hollywood biopic, which is obviously far more interested in the legend and mystique of Jackie Robinson than the man himself. This is the kind of sports movie that's packed to the brim with slow-motion shots of Robinson waving to the crowd, children watching him adoringly from the stands, and low-angle shots of Robinson looking thoughtful and heroic.
Considering his legacy, and the fact that Robinson was by all accounts a truly great man both on and off the field, this approach isn't entirely inappropriate. However, other than one really good scene where Robinson breaks down under the abuse of a rival team's coach (a despicable if cartoonish Alan Tudyk as real-life Phillies manager, and racist Ben Chapman), Robinson is presented almost stoically. Chadwick Boseman makes for a suitably heroic Robinson, but it would have been nice if at least a few scenes had been included that focused on the emotional turmoil Robinson had to face when on the road in hostile towns, where he often wasn't even allowed to bunk with his teammates due to segregation.
Instead, loads of time is spent on Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey. Nothing against the man, who truly was a hero for integrating baseball, but the fact is Rickey's story is much less interesting than Robinson's. Likely, the focus on Rickey is due to the fact that none other than Harrison Ford is playing him, but this is also a problem. I love Ford (as I'm sure we all do) but in the case his own legendary stature works against him. Ford's one of those guys like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, in that he's such an iconic presence that it's tough to accept him as Rickey, with his corny grin, ultra-fake Groucho Marx eyebrows, and affected voice. Ford's obviously trying to stretch, but I think he's almost beyond the point of really being able to disappear into a role like this- and his presence can't help but be distracting. A guy like Robert Duvall made have worked better.
The rest of the cast fares better than Ford, although their screen-time is limited. Christopher Meloni is great as the Dodgers tough but fair GM, Leo Durocher, a ladies man, and the only guy who can mouth-off to Rickey and get away with it. The same goes for Lucas Black and Hamish Linklater as two of Robinson's more open minded teammates. The best of the bunch has to be John C. McGinley, who absolutely nails his part as the Dodgers play-by-play commentator Red Barber. You never see him outside the announcer's box, but he's able to nail Barber's exact cadence and style of delivery, with fights being “chin waggings” and so on.
Given Helgeland's reverent approach, it's no surprise that 42 also sports an incredibly over-the-top musical score by Mark Isham, that's yet another of those soundtracks that seemingly exists to cue audience reactions, such as “this is the part when you feel sad”, “now you should cheer”, etc. Isham's a good composer, but this is ultra-saccharine, and one of the movie's more obvious shortcomings, although I have no doubt this is exactly what the filmmakers wanted.
I'm still convinced that Jackie Robinson's life story could- and should- be made into a much better film, if only more of an effort was made to depict the man, rather than the legend. Still, for what it is 42 isn't bad at all, and it's worth seeing even if merely for the fact that Robinson's story is one we should all be familiar with and never forget. Truly, he was one of the greatest sportsmen who ever lived, and this is a decent tribute.
|Extra Tidbit:||Before the Dodgers, Robinson was warmly received in my home town, Montreal, where he played for the Royals.|