Jackie Robinson was a legendary baseball player and a trail-blazing athlete – but his epic story retold in director Brian Helgeland’s 42 is an honest attempt at a home-run that instead sits safely at third base.
The movie revolves around gifted rookie Chadwick Boseman (in his first lead role), who portrays an iron-willed and convincing Robinson, and a practically unrecognizable Harrison Ford as dedicated Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
Meanwhile, another standout performance comes from talented Nicole Beharie who is cast as Robinson’s seemingly flawless wife, Rachel.
These actors effectively convey Robinson’s revolutionary tale of struggle, defeat and success. But while Helgeland’s delivery to the big screen aims to be a rousing crowd-pleaser, it falls short in terms of depth and consistency.
First inning of the film is slow
The film kicks off in 1945 in Rickey’s office, where the manager bucks tradition by inviting a “negro” player to join the Major Leagues.
After a brief, underwhelming sequence in which Rickey muddles through a stack of candidates, Robinson’s fate is sealed.
From there, the film chronicles Robinson’s experiences from signing a contract with the International League’s Montreal Royals in 1945 to his official debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946, including the harsh treatment and hard-earned triumphs he experiences in his rookie season.
Despite Helgeland’s laser-like focus on these three key years, it would have been illuminating for viewers to have had more historical context. For instance, Robinson’s tenure in the Negro Leagues is overlooked entirely.
Robinson’s personal life never makes it to plate
The biopic also barely skims the surface of Robinson’s marriage. While Rachel Robinson is portrayed as gutsy and a loving and supportive wife, her character remains largely two-dimensional.
Still, Beharie does wonders with the underwritten role. The young actress is a natural screen presence and she comes across as sympathetic figure throughout the film.
Meanwhile, critical moments of Robinson’s personal life are glossed over. His wedding day and the birth of his first child, Jackie Robinson Jr. – both of which occur in 1946 — are both given minimal screen time.
Audiences who are seeking more insight into Robinson’s life as a husband and a father may leave the theater disappointed.
Lead characters carry the movie
Still, Boseman gives a star-making performance in the lead role. Not only does he resemble the legendary ballplayer but he also personifies his athleticism and determination.
Whether in close-up or full-screen in the batter’s box, Boseman brings an intensity and grit that gives the film its emotional weight.
Meanwhile, viewers will enjoy seeing Harrison Ford play an out-of-character part like Branch Rickey. This is a far cry from his iconic Indiana Jones and Star Wars action heroes. Ford disappears into this down-to-earth character and imbues him with a lively spirit.
42 accurately portrays sordid racial past
The movie is dutiful in capturing the nation’s racially sordid past and provides a sharp reminder of the segregation and discrimination that once gripped this country.
Gut-wrenching scenes of Robinson being ridiculed, scorned and belittled with racial taunts are sure to summon powerful emotions from viewers.
One particularly powerful scene shows Robinson at a game, ready to bat, as the bigoted Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, played by Alan Tudyk, screams an endless stream of racist epithets at him, which leads to one of the film’s most poignant moments.
Robinson also faces resistance from his fellow Dodgers teammates, who create a petition to keep Robinson off the team. Once their original plan fails, several members consider leaving the ball club altogether.
The scenes are often uncomfortable to watch – as they should be. They capture the reality of the racial climate and Robinson’s composure in the face of hecklers is inspirational.
Supporting characters help create a legend
It is also Rickey’s determination to integrate Major League Baseball that keeps the team together and contributes to Robinson’s success – yet even Rickey’s intentions appear insincere at times, as profit seems to be the true motivation for his interest in Robinson.
Still, Helgeland – whose other directing credits include 1999’s Payback (starring Mel Gibson) and screenplays for acclaimed films like L.A. Confidential (1997) and Mystic River (2003) — carefully crafts some of the film’s supporting roles including Dodgers short stop Pee Wee Reese, played by Lucas Black, and Christopher Meloni as Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher.
Both Black and Meloni are well cast and you’ll likely admire their characters for helping to rally their Brooklyn Dodgers teammates behind Robinson.
As the only black face in an all-white uniform on an all-white team, the movie shines light on Robinson’s considerable character, talent and discipline.
While Helgeland doesn’t knock 42 out of the ballpark, it still tells Robinson’s story with the respect it deserves.
Follow Lilly Workneh @Lilly_Works