Early in 42, the entertaining new movie about how Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in the 1940s, we see Chadwick Boseman as Robinson stealing bases, the joy of the game writ large on his face. He’s like Bugs Bunny tap dancing between the plates, taking pleasure in discombobulating the pitcher. Then, suddenly, he’s the Roadrunner, tearing up the field as opponents – coyotes all – lunge and curse at his dust.
It’s good that the film includes that scene, because later – after Robinson moves into the major league – you’ll wonder how he endures the abuse, with fast balls banging into his skull and even faster, crueler insults hurled at him both on the field and off, by opponents and teammates alike.
It is the love of the game that sustains Robinson in this crafty screen biography – that and a reservoir of personal pride and dignity, along with a sportsman’s determination to win, no matter the odds or the cost. And also, maybe, Robinson is sustained by a sense of history, the knowledge that he represents something larger than himself, that he has been chosen to endure these trials so that those who come after him won’t have to.
Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager, is the man who chose him (though Rickey, a serious Methodist shown here to be motivated largely by a sense of moral rightness, might say he acted as the right hand of God). Played by Harrison Ford, by far the most recognizable name in the cast, the bow-tied, fedora-ed and cigar-chomping Rickey is a larger than life figure
who has earned a permanent, prominent spot in baseball history. Ford is certain to win an Oscar nomination for his performance – and even this early in the game I’d be willing to bet money that he wins – but the movie has the good sense to keep things in proportion.
Robinson wore the number 42. He was the star – and target – out on the baseball diamond. This is his movie.
And what glorious screen entertainment it is! Brian Helgeland, who both wrote the script and directed the movie, knows how to engage an audience. His writing resume includes L.A. Confidential, Man on Fire, Mystic River and the 2009 remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. He is a pro at building sturdy stories, crafting telling dialogue and creating characters that you want to spend time with. Robinson is an important historical figure, and this is a story that everyone should know, but Helgeland has applied the kind of Hollywood-patented sweet coating that makes you forget you’re taking medicine that’s good for you.
Before now, most of us had never heard of Chadwick Boseman, but if this movie gets the audience and the attention that I suspect it will, we’ll be hearing plenty about him in the future. This is a star-making role that the young actor fully inhabits and brings to life. We believe in his Jackie Robinson. The movie smartly shows us both the stoic face he turned to the world – Robinson had to appear to be a good sport, even while surrounded by monsters – and also all of the hurt and rage he had to suppress.
If that were all, of course, the film would be unendurable. 42 also is just downright fun – not just the baseball scenes but also the interaction between characters. Some of the movie’s most delightful moments are the interplay between Boseman and the equally unknown Nicole Beharie, as Robinson’s wife, Rachel. It also helps that we know the ending and that it is a happy one. This is a tale of triumph, and some of the most moving moments involve Robinson’s teammates, one by one, coming to embrace him as one of their own.
The movie truncates a lot, but that pretty much is unavoidable. Also, 42 starts off on shaky ground, with a voiceover delivered by an African-American sportswriter whom Rickey enlisted to act as Robinson’s chauffeur, guide, protector and chronicler. The use of this omniscient narrator is a way to squeeze in information and perspective that a modern audience needs in order to understand a story that took place more than 60 years ago, when America – the world – was a different place. It is a clumsy device that the movie is wise to abandon as quickly as it can.