Writer-director Brian Helgeland acknowledges the groundbreaking ballplayer’s legend without turning him into a plastic dashboard saint
The characters of fictional films and the subjects of documentaries get to be flawed, complicated creations. But when Hollywood casts its eye on the stories of real people – particularly the heroically brave ones – out come the gauze and the simplicity, with any and all rough edges smoothed down or hidden altogether.
So for all the 1940s hokiness of “42,” with its big cars and big bands and peanuts and Cracker Jack, it’s a wonderful surprise to see that there’s a recognizable human being at the center of the hoopla.
There’s a temptation to pretend that the great Jackie Robinson, who integrated our national pastime of baseball in the pre-Civil Rights era, was some sort of secular saint who coasted above the insults and slights and derision and death threats.
As portrayed here by writer-director Brian Helgeland (“A Knight’s Tale”), however, Robinson kept a steady coil of rage inside of him. This was a man, after all, who was court-martialed during World War II for refusing to sit at the back of a bus. “42” celebrates an exceptional athlete not for his saintliness, but rather for his ability to keep his temper when so many around him were losing theirs.
It’s a sentiment distilled in the first conversation between Negro League star Robinson (played by the electrifying Chadwick Boseman) and Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford): “You want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” asks the shortstop.
“No,” replies the man who will become his boss. “I want a player who’s got the guts NOT to fight back.”
And not fighting back is what we see Robinson do, whether it’s with racist fellow teammates or, in the film’s most intense exchange, with redneck Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), who subjects Robinson to a tsunami of what we now call hate speech.
Another interesting thing about “42” is that it doesn’t paint a hokey picture as to why white people start questioning racism. Rickey wants to win the World Series; Robinson’s fellow Dodgers see how ugly their epithets sound when Chapman spews them; and it’s the attack from outside that makes them band together as a team.
The movie may soft-pedal the deeper, uglier implications of race relations in this country, but at least it’s less phony than a feel-good lie like “The Help.”
Where Helgeland missteps is in establishing sportswriter Wendell Smith (André Holland) as a narrator and unofficial aide-de-camp for Robinson early on. While Smith and Robinson were close in real life, the reporter feels like a clunky device for “42,” one the movie all but abandons midway through. And given that this isn’t intended to be the strictest of histories (an opening card tells us that what we’re about to see is “based on a true story”), Smith should have been utilized better and more consistently, or not at all.
That’s not to say that Holland doesn’t do what he can with what he’s been given; the cast overall is particularly strong, with vets like Christopher Meloni (as Leo Durocher), Toby Huss, Max Gail, Lucas Black (as Pee Wee Reese), John C. McGinley (doing a very good Red Barber impersonation) and T.R. Knight filling out the roster.
Ford does some of his most dynamic work in a while, creating a rich character and allowing himself to disappear behind Rickey’s bulbous nose.
Nicole Beharie (“Shame”) makes Rachel Robinson anything but “the girl” that you might expect in this kind of movie; the scenes between the Robinsons are romantic and sexy, generating real sparks and underlining the strength that these two people found in each other.
And if you’re here for the sports-movie stuff, there are plenty of exciting moments, many of them revolving around Robinson’s talent for stealing bases and his unique ability to psych out pitchers. (It’s admittedly tricky to come up with music for a baseball film that doesn’t call to mind Randy Newman’s immortal score for “The Natural," but it appears composer Mark Isham barely even tried.)
“42” is a fairly slick confection, but it wisely avoids hagiography, mostly sticking to the facts in telling a compelling story about a truly extraordinary man. It’s by no means the final word on the subject of Jackie Robinson (or baseball, or race relations), but it’s a dazzling celebration of genuine daring.