In a league of his own
Standard sports biopic saved by compelling story
By Tim Pompey 04/18/2013
Directed by Brian Helgeland
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie
Rated PG-13 for thematic
elements and language
2 hrs. 8 mins.
I love baseball. What I don’t care for are baseball movies. Most of them feel artificial and predictable. Many of them include canned dialogue. It’s fun playing and watching the game. It’s not so much fun watching movies about it.
42 is pretty standard for a sports biopic. You already know the story from beginning to end, and the film’s approach doesn’t veer too far from what’s normal for the genre: talented underdog, obstacle, dark days, more obstacles, triumph.
What’s compelling here is that, despite what you may know about Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers, seeing this played out in film only reinforces the gritty nature and the courage of the man himself. It’s a story that deserves to be told.
Most people know at least some of Robinson’s history. A talented black athlete from UCLA who played baseball in the old Negro leagues. In 1945, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, seeking to integrate his sport, handpicked Robinson to be the first black Major League Baseball player.
Robinson’s passage into professional white baseball was as tough as it gets. Ugly racism, threats, bean balls. But despite all the blatant hatred, Robinson went on to become the National League Rookie of the Year in 1947 and helped the Dodgers win a World Series in 1955. Today he’s in the Hall of Fame and every April 15 is designated by Major League Baseball as Jackie Robinson Day. To top it off, he’s the only player in Major League Baseball whose number 42 is permanently retired across the league.
The focus of this film is on the years 1945-47, as Robinson was breaking into professional white baseball. There’s a lot of ground to cover here, but fortunately, writer and director Brian Helgeland picks and chooses his plot points well and only teeters on the brink of sentimentality.
What’s more, there’s a human element he explores that gives some flesh and bone to Robinson’s persona. He’s a complex man with a hairline trigger. He doesn’t back down from confrontation and he doesn’t stand idly by and let racism roll off his back.
But to play in a white league, he has to learn to bear a heavy burden. He can’t fight back. He can only allow himself to play baseball and, as Rickey reminds him, to remain a gentleman. Helgeland captures that well and lets you feel Robinson’s pain.
42 is also fortunate to have a talented cast, especially Harrison Ford as the growling, cigar smoking Rickey and Chadwick Boseman as the smoldering Robinson.
It’s been a while since Ford has had a role he could sink his teeth into. Here, he does it with conviction and a sly sense of humor.
Boseman underplays his role and lets his face do most of his talking. With intense eyes and a striking resemblance to Robinson, he lets the story come to him. Like baseball itself, he seems to be acting by reflex and carrying the spirit of Robinson in his body language.
42 is overly earnest and predictable with an ending as cheesy as a dairy farm in Wisconsin, but the story pulls you in and keeps you interested. I can overlook these flaws because of the story.
Most sports movies have to point out why the star is courageous and deserves notice. That’s not the case here. Jackie Robinson was one talented and tough hombre who forged a path singlehandedly and changed a society.
This film respectfully pays him his due and makes you understand why the number 42 has become revered among baseball players. It’s not just a number on a shirt. It’s the man who wore the shirt who made us all sit up and pay attention.