Jackie Robinson’s plights and ultimate success are the stuff of legend. Arguably one of the best players to swing a bat, with the only number in baseball history to ever be retired across all of MLB, Robinson comes to life on the silver screen in “42,” directed and written by Brian Helgeland. Although chock-full of inspired performances by its leads and moments of real resonance, the film becomes at times too heavy-handed and forced in its quest to canonize Robinson, preventing the film from becoming a quintessential part of baseball lore.
The film details the first few years of Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) career, starting from his time in the Negro leagues. After getting a call from the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), Robinson is signed to the team. He first heads to their minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, and then eventually finds himself in the big leagues. There he must face the charged racial prejudices of the public as well as in the locker room, breaking the unwritten color barrier of baseball.
Helgeland’s directorial strength lies in his precision and attention to detail. With the box scores, vintage uniforms, announcers, and the startlingly accurate rendering of Ebbets Field, the home stadium of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the film aims to transport its audience to another time with different sensibilities. Helgeland’s interpretations of pivotal games are where his eye for the small things is on full display. The tension and suspense is best developed when the film does not depend on the dialogue, but rather the slow unraveling of the action on the field. Each fly ball, walk, and foul ball is taken into account, and it is not always the home run that serves as the climax. When Robinson finally arrives at spring camp for the Dodgers, he resolves to steal three bases. The sequence is one of the more exciting ones, although the event is mundane and small relative to the film’s larger plot.
It is when Helgeland steps away from the baseball field that the film teeters on an overly sentimental and saccharine script that simplifies its characters and relationships to a fault. “You are a hero,” Robinson is told. He responds, “I am just a ball player.” Robinson is seen as the model man, and his only vice, a short temper, is heard and not actually seen except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. While the film’s aim is to mythologize Robinson, simplifying him to purely the beacon between white and black relations does a disservice to a man who was much more multi-faceted. Many of the team members are indistinguishable, and Robinson’s relationships with those around him, including his wife (Nicole Beharie), seem overly idealistic, contributing to the at-times after-school-special feel of the film.
Boseman primarily masks the faults of the script, playing Robinson with a quiet strength and resilience. The film’s Robinson does not seek to be the champion of black rights, but he is thrust into the role, coming straight into the line of fire of those who think that he has no right to play on the same field as the white man. Boseman is able to invoke Robinson’s frustration and restraint to powerful results. The best example of this comes after Robinson is verbally abused by the Philadelphia manager. Robinson heads back to the walkthrough to vent his anger. Boseman’s ferocity as he breaks the bat as well as his emotional collapse bring a needed desperation that was missing from the film’s glossy exterior.
The biggest revelation of the film, though, is Ford, who portrays the Bible-thumping, money-conscious Rickey. Hardly recognizable in his prosthetics and always holding a cigar, Ford’s Rickey is humorous and gruff, serving as the perfect ancillary point to Boseman’s Robinson. Rickey is the conscience and grounding factor as well as a man with a mission. Ford creates an endearing figure in Rickey by portraying him with a gusto and sensitivity and switching quickly between conviction and uncertainty.
The film is ultimately more “The Blind Side” than “Moneyball,” old-fashioned in its sentimentalities and simple in its mission. While there is nothing wrong with this, there is a sense that with such a rich history from which to draw, a much more complicated, complete film could have been made. In the end, Helgeland’s “42,” although one-noted, is an inoffensive excursion into one of baseball’s greatest stories that is truly inspirational even in this time and age.
—Staff writer Neha Mehrotra can be reached at email@example.com.