It may not rewrite the rule book, but the earnest biopic “42” does right by groundbreaking baseball player Jackie Robinson.
Taking its name from Robinson's number, which has been retired by every Major League Baseball team, the inspirational sports drama carefully and colorfully documents Robinson's historic breaking of the sport's color line when he made his Dodgers debut on April 15, 1947, blazing a trail for other black players.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland, whose credits include “A Knight's Tale,” “Payback” and the Oscar-winning screenplay for “L.A. Confidential,” follows the conventions of one of my favorite cinematic subgenres straight down the line, but the fact-based story is so uplifting and cheer-worthy, it works even if it doesn't break any new ground in the storytelling arena.
Helgeland and his lead actor, Chadwick Boseman rightly portray Robinson as a talented, likable young man rather than lionizing him as an icon.
The filmmaker chronicles Robinson's historic rookie season through the eyes of his chronicler, now-legendary black sports journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who sets the segregated post-World War II scene.
To the shock of his staff, canny Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, who takes a go-for-broke attitude, adopting a whole new look, voice and bearing) decides that the time is right for racial integration in baseball and begins the hunt for a black player to break the color line. He is looking for a youngster with a bright future, loads of talent, an affable but not-too-nice demeanor and, most importantly, the toughness to take the coming abuse without wilting or striking back.
And he finds all that, although with a bit of a hotheaded attitude, in Robinson, who also has a faithful young wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), willing to back his play.
The film tracks Robinson's progress from the Dodgers' minor league Montreal affiliate to his call up to the bigs, where a group of his teammates, led by hard-case right-fielder Dixie Walker (Choctaw native Ryan Merriman), sign a petition vowing they won't play with him.
To Helgeland's credit, “42” doesn't shy away from depicting the era's rampant racism to the extent the PG-13 rating allows. Robinson and Smith have to flee towns in the middle of the night because of lynch mob rumors, a small-town sheriff threatens to arrest the player if he doesn't leave the field, and in a particularly stomach-churning sequence, Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) hurls vile insults like fastballs every time Robinson is at bat.
Still, Robinson endures, his wife and Rickey sustain him, and with the exception of Dixie and a few other holdouts, his teammates grow to respect and support him.
With the exception of Ford, Helgeland depends not on stars but on stalwart utility players like Christopher Meloni, T.R. Knight and Lucas Black to tell Robinson's story. For the most part, they deliver the goods, with John C. McGinley darn near stealing the show with his turn as dry-witted sportscaster Red Barber.
It may not be a cinematic grand slam, but “42” does a fine job sharing and celebrating Robinson's legacy, which makes it a solid win.
— Brandy McDonnell