Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, becoming the first African American man to play in the majors when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1947 season. Robinson played himself in a 1950 movie about his life, but some 60-plus years later, he's gotten a major studio bio-pic release, 2013's simply and appropriately named 42.
Returning home from serving in World War II, former UCLA athlete Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) begins playing with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Major League Baseball has been segregated, forcing black players to play in their own leagues. As owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers though, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is ready to make a major decision; he wants to sign Jackie with the organization, and hopefully he can one day make the big leagues, breaking the color barrier. Ready to step into a horrific racially-charged storm, Robinson spends a year with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' minor league affiliate, but he's on the fast track for the Majors. Rickey picked Robinson for a reason though, believing and hoping that Robinson can not only play baseball but handle the constant jeering and ridicule from not only fans, but others teams, players and coaches.
I love sports, but for me, baseball has always been the best. I don't know if there's a better story in baseball history than that of Jackie Robinson becoming the first African American player to play in the big leagues. Director/writer Brian Helgeland does a fine job avoiding the pratfalls of doing a bio-pic about such a famous person. You want to tell the honest truth, but at the same time you don't want to make a dull, whitewashed version of that person's life. In that sense, Helgeland is working with an advantage. As a person, as a character, however you interpret it, Jackie Robinson is a very likable, very sympathetic and very interesting man. If you didn't know any better, you would think this script exaggerates what he went through but....nope. This was the very realistic and scary truth. Robinson dealt with racial jeers on the field and in the dugout at times while also dealing with death threats against him and his family. It's hard to comprehend that one man was able to handle so much.
A relative unknown with more TV shows to his name than feature films, Boseman does a fine job in bringing Jackie to life on-screen. He shows that fire and pain within Robinson as he deals with such extreme pressures all around him but never overdoes it. In one uncomfortable scene, he unleashes his emotions in the hallway leading back to the Dodgers clubhouse. Other than that, Boseman does a lot without doing a lot at all. It's a physical performance, not a really talkative one. His Jackie is confident about his abilities but struggles to overcome more internally than externally. He has to keep so much frustration inside that it's hard to believe Robinson really did this in real-life. The story is at its best focusing on the baseball, the background with his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), the slower portions of the story. It helps add another layer to Jackie, humanize him on top of the baseball player, but the scenes aren't as interesting as the rest of the flick.
Another essential part for this story is casting Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, a real-life character if there ever was one. Harrison Ford absolutely nails the part. I don't know if he'll get an Oscar nomination or anything for his supporting part, but it's perfect. He's honest, admitting he wants to make money while also later revealing some of his real motivations for trying to integrate baseball. Christopher Meloni is solid as Leo Durocher, the Dodgers manager, with Toby Huss and Max Gail also playing assorted coaches in the Dodgers organization. John C. McGinley has a quick but effective part as Red Barber, the Dodgers radio play-by-play man, bringing that voice to life in his few scenes. As for the Dodgers, we get Lucas Black as Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese, Hamish Linklater as All-Star pitcher Ralph Branca, Ryan Merriman as Dixie Walker, a teammate who resents having to play with a black player, and Jesse Luken as Eddie Stanky, a fiery player who comes around to having Jackie as a teammate.
The movie overall has a lot going for it, some of it easily attributable to the look and feel of the movie. Ebbets Field, Shibe Park, Crosley Field and Forbes Field were all classic baseball stadiums recreated with CGI digital imagery for all the baseball scenes. The CGI use is seamless, a thing of beauty to watch. It's the look of the games and stadiums, the rabid crowds to the supportive fans, the bus trips to walking around town. All those little things come together nicely. Mark Isham's score is okay but nothing special, leaning more toward triumphant hero music than is necessary.
With an episodic story that covers two-plus years of Robinson's life -- and covering a whole lot of ground with a whole lot of characters -- there are certainly some moments that just resonate more than others. Much of that strength comes along in the second half of '42' when Jackie makes it to the Dodgers. We see the downright nastiness of a rival manager (Alan Tudyk) verbally abusing Jackie during a game. The counter is those who come to Jackie's defense. Luken's Eddie steps up for Jackie, knowing Jackie just can't respond. I loved Linklater's Branca approaching Robinson about why he doesn't shower with the team. I loved the relationship that develops between Jackie and Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), a black reporter dealing with the same things as Jackie, albeit on a much smaller scale. My favorite scene was when Black's Reese realizes the depths of what his teammate has gone through. He approaches him on the field, putting his arm around him to show all his friends and family back home that the color doesn't matter. They're teammates. He ends it nicely, stating 'Maybe tomorrow we'll all wear 42 so no one can tell the difference.'
It's a nice moment considering MLB now honors Robinson once a year by having players around the league to wear jerseys with the No. 42, Robinson's number and the only number retired across baseball. I think that's part of why this film works so well. Part of the charm of baseball is the history, the stars, the personalities, and Jackie Robinson is one of the best. The movie isn't perfect, but it gets better with each passing scene, ending on a great note. Sports fan or not, this one is highly recommended for everyone.
42 (2013): *** 1/2 /****