Baseball hall-of-famer, social activist, and boundary-breaker Jackie Robinson has long been due a full-scale feature film to chronicle his many achievements, and while Brian Helgeland’s 42 wisely sticks to telling the remarkable story of Robinson’s burgeoning Major League career as anchored by uniformly great performances, it’s an otherwise stale portrayal of one of America’s greatest heroes. 42 will likely be hailed as some manner of crowd-pleaser, but the film’s frequent lack of emotional punch and linear sense of history leave it far more suited for sharing within a classroom setting. Helgeland’s film feels safe and stagey, a bizarre take on Robinson’s bold and brash life story, and it only occasionally allows moments of true emotional impact to fly out of the park, seemingly beyond Helgeland’s control.
42 picks up with Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) in his post-collegiate and -military life, as a star player on the Kansas City Monarchs, part of baseball’s Negro leagues of the 1940’s. Unbeknownst to Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ club president and general manager, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), had his eye on then-shortstop, as he was cooking up a plan to drive revenues (and, apparently, his own good sense) by bringing on the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues. He wanted that player to be Robinson, and 42 centers on Robinson and Rickey’s dual struggle to overcome all manner of prejudice, hate, and stupidity to give Robinson his quite well-deserved place on the Dodgers and in the majors.
The film certainly feels both well-meaning and well-intentioned, but 42 can’t quite find a suitable tone or flow, fluctuating between quiet moments that convey tremendous emotion and over-the-top, hammy, stagey, and exposition-heavy sequences that feel as if they belong on a high school stage somewhere. Helgeland sticks to basic storytelling conceits when it comes to sharing Robinson’s journey – this is a film, after all, that kicks off with newsreel footage and a reporter tapping away on his trusty typewriter to convey historical perspective – and 42 suffers from such lack of originality. Robinson’s story is an unquestionably important one, but Helgeland’s style leaves 42 feeling like a far more on-the-nose production, not a well-honed feature film. To his credit, Helgeland’s script, while often bloated when it comes to focusing on nonessential elements, does still wisely chronicle a just a small slice of Robinson’s sprawling life and career. Said slice is, however, the most obviously boundary-breaking, and the one that is most ripe for the theatrical treatment.
What’s least stagey about 42 is, thankfully, its performances, which are generally solid and highly believable. For his first major theatrical role, Chadwick Boseman turns in a stellar performance, easily the highlight of the film. His Robinson is appropriately multi-faceted and complicated, a charmer with a thick skin, a crusader who doesn’t understand how a person could act any other way. Ford is at his grumpy, growly best as Branch Rickey – so growly, in fact, that it’s difficult to tell just what the hell he’s mouthing off about for the better part of the film’s first act. Before Ford finally settles into the Rickey role (which he does, mercifully enough), his delivery closely resembles something like a large, cigar-chomping honey-baked ham moseying across the screen (not a good look for anyone). Yet, once Ford pipes down a bit and focuses on the emotional center of his tough-talking Rickey, even his constant platitude-spouting rings strong and true.
The large supporting cast is rounded out by the lovely Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s wife Rachel who, despite positively glowing on the screen, is still featured far too often for no apparent reason. (The Robinsons had a great marriage, a fact that is driven home repeatedly in 42, long after it’s been made plain.) She’s joined by Andre Holland as reporter Wendell Smith (an important figure on his own, but one reduced to a storytelling ploy here), T.R. Knight as Rickey’s right-hand man, Christopher Meloni as the Dodgers’ feckless manager, the usually charming Alan Tudyk as the film’s most notable villain, and a sprawling pack of recognizable faces as the many Dodgers (including Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman, and Lucas Black). The performances in 42 are what really recommend it, and the element of the film that pushes it beyond its otherwise cheeseball approach to difficult history.
The Upside: A strong leading performance by Chadwick Boseman, a generally well-focused look at the most pivotal slice of Robinson’s career, and occasional moments of emotional brilliance.
The Downside: An often cheesy and sentimental look at a difficult period in American history (and sports) that simplifies some of the toughest challenges faced by Robinson and his supporters, a bloated runtime that spends far too long on nonessential elements of Robinson’s story, and a stagey sense of direction.
On the Side: The role of Branch Rickey was originally intended for Robert Redford.