“42” tells the true story of Jackie Robinson, the Hall of Fame baseball player who was the first African-American to integrate the sport in 1947. For this, he received animosity from other players, incredibly nasty heckling from the fans, and an enormous volume of hate mail and death threats. Through it all, he persevered… not only to change the game, but to become great at it.
It’s a powerful story, inherently, and “42” tells it in a straightforward, conventional, albeit entertaining way.
In 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) makes a bold decision. He’s going to eschew baseball’s unwritten segregation policies and field black players. In spite of the protestations of his advisors, Rickey begins to scout the Negro Leagues. The player he selects is Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). Due to Robinson’s ball playing skills, his military service, and age, Rickey feels Robinson would be the perfect candidate for the challenge.
When they meet, Rickey tries to impress upon Robinson that the challenge of integration can only be won if Robinson suffers the slings and arrows of the racist taunts he’s sure to receive with nobility and restraint. Should he fight back, Rickey is convinced the press would focus on his actions only, and not the instigation, painting Robinson as not having the temperament for the Major Leagues. The only way to win is to keep his dignity in the face of the racism and excel at baseball.
After a year in the minors, Robinson is called up to make his Major League debut. As expected, he’s met with hostility. Beginning with a chilly reception from several members of his own team, Robinson faces bad calls from prejudiced umps, pitchers who throw at his head, fans who hurl racial epithets from the stands, and even an opposing manager who openly curses him from the visiting dugout (Alan Tudyk). But over the course of the film, Robinson wins over his teammates, the press and the fans with his both his great play and his incredible determination.
The story of Jackie Robinson is a powerful one, and any treatment of it will be the beneficiary of his bravery, toughness and talent. “42” showcases his rookie year without much embellishment or flashy style. It’s a traditionally directed, unremarkably scored film that puts the story in front of you and lets the events speak for themselves. Aside from a few, sparse, humor beats, the script doesn’t have much of a life of its own. In the less than 24 hours since I’ve viewed it, I haven’t yet decided if I should praise the film for its restraint or criticize it for not aiming higher, given the powerful nature of the material.
Regardless of how safe the film plays its hand, the story itself is still an important, incredible one, and “42” does one thing very well. It brings the two featured roles to life with two excellent performances from Boseman and Ford as Robinson and Rickey respectively. Boseman does a great job of portraying the silent suffering Robinson had to endure. He’s believably athletic, and very charismatic. Ford is cantankerous and gruff, delivering righteous, bellowing moralizations to opponents and soft-spoken encouragement to Robinson. This is easily his best role in several years. The two play off each other extremely well, portraying a team effort in an extraordinarily challenging test of courage.
It’s a solid movie, and one that I think most viewers will approve of. I know that the audience I saw it with was applauding both during the film and afterwards. It didn’t do anything overly remarkable, in my opinion, but with the power of the given subject and two strong performances from Boseman and Ford, it didn’t have to.