2013 - 128 minutes
Directed by: Brian Helgeland
Written by: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, John C. McGinley, Lucas Black, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland
42 embraces its title in that it’s a by-the-numbers sports biopic, and that’s pretty disappointing. The story of Jackie Robinson is one that obviously transcends sports and is a true transformative cultural watershed. What can a 2013 telling of this historic story teach us? If it exposes a new generation to Jackie’s legend then that’s great, but the film would have to teach at a deep level or at the very least inspire people to seek out more information on their own. 42 definitely doesn’t do the former, and I don’t think it does the latter, either.
One staple I was pleased that the film avoids is a drawn out childhood prologue or flashbacks; Jackie is already an established Negro League player from the beginning. Unfortunately though, that standard storytelling device isn’t replaced with anything and we never get an in-depth glimpse of Robinson as a person. Chadwick Boseman has the look and plays Robinson with an effective blend of charisma and bubbling emotion, but through the film he is just used as a pawn in the emotional high points of the film. You could argue that that’s the point, but I wanted more.
Those moments start from the opening scenes when Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides to add a black player to the team, which could capture the black audience and help generate more revenue. During Rickey’s speeches and as he and his underlings sort through the dossiers of Negro League players, the syrupy strings of the score begin to swell in the background cementing the straight-ahead sentimental tone.
I don’t know anything about the real Rickey’s characteristics to know if Ford’s performance is accurate. Regardless of its accuracy, the mannerisms, quivering lower lip and voice that sounds as though he was chewing on hot coals is extremely distracting and borderline comical at times. It really pulls you out of the moment.
Supporting characters other than Rickey are painted with such broad strokes they are completely marginalized. Robinson’s wife Rachel (Nicole Behare) drifts in and out of the story whenever someone is needed to react and respond to Jackie’s feelings. The reporter assigned to follow Robinson, Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), appears as needed to provide exposition or resolve conflict. His teammates are cartoon versions that either are on board with a black teammate or are not. Before the credits roll and we get the requisite text summarizing the fates of the characters a few of the teammates are highlighted, but all we can remember is “that’s the guy that supported Jackie” or “that’s the guy that didn’t.”
An inordinate amount of screen time is devoted to a game or two where Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) hurls insults and slurs at Robinson as he stands in the batter’s box. It is uncomfortable (as it should be), but just goes on and on to the point where it loses its effectiveness. It does, however, lead to possibly the most vibrant scene in the film – when Jackie restrains himself from physically harming Chapman and instead retreats to the tunnel under the dugout and rages. Finally some real emotion, though it is all sucked away when Rickey strolls in for some droll words of wisdom.
42 is too watered down to carry any weight and while that may be more digestible for mainstream audiences, it is a disservice to the true bravery and talent of Jackie Robinson.