Everyone has seen at least one inspirational sports movie in their lifetime. I mean, this entire last generation practically has “Remember the Titans” engrained in their heads from the numerous times they’ve seen it on TV (additionally in my case for all three years my middle school put it on in the auditorium). Sometimes with these movies, there is also a theme of racial prejudice that serves as the backbone of the story, such as “Glory Road” and the aforementioned “Titans.” With that in mind, it’s odd that it took this long for a biopic about Jackie Robinson, one of baseball’s most famous and important players, to come along, but it’s here at last with “42.”
Rather than take the birth-to-death route that many biopics do, “42” instead zeroes in on the start of Robinson’s career with the Brooklyn Dodgers thanks to executive Branch Rickey’s insistence on breaking the barrier for non-white baseball players in the M.L.B. Being the first African-American to play in the major leagues excites Robinson, even to the point of proposing to his girlfriend once he signs the contract, although the road to being accepted isn’t without its obstacles. Even without taking into account the opposing teams trying to rile up his short temper during games, Robinson has to deal with prejudice from his own teammates despite his skills on the diamond.
Truth be told, “42” doesn’t break any new ground in regards to the sports movie genre. Yet, the movie has just the right amount of earnest sentimentality and intense drama to make it work. There are certainly times where it threatens to overstep itself in the emotional manipulation, such as randomly switching a few times to the perspectives of young boys who look up to Robinson, but don’t have any bearing on the plot itself.
In a similar vain, sportswriter Wendell Smith, who seemed like he would be used as a framing device as he follows Robinson on this journey, is mostly window dressing in the grand scheme of things and isn’t developed beyond sidekick tag-along. He felt like a part that writer/director Brian Helgeland saw more as a historical checkbox than an integral part of the story being told aside from his initial actions that get it all started.
With that said, it’s hard not to be swept up in the events that categorized this year in Robinson’s life. When Phillies manager Ben Chapmen (played against type by the usually affable Alan Tudyk) berates him nonstop during a game, we really feel the anger and frustration bubbling within Robinson. When he goes back into the dugout and releases it all in a fit of bat-breaking rage, it’s an emotionally powerful moment to witness, all the more impressive given this is Chadwick Boseman’s first major acting role. An episode of “Law and Order” and “ C.S.I.” isn’t exactly the calling card for undertaking a part as daunting as Jackie Robinson, but the decision paid off greatly as Boseman steals the movie from his more experienced costars with inner turmoil and charisma to spare.
It can understandably take a few minutes to get used to Harrison Ford’s heightened performance as Branch Rickey. With the rest of the movie and actors being played with earnest seriousness, he might seem like a caricature. As time goes on and the relationship Rickey and Robinson is given some screen time, the character settles into a groove and shows some of Ford’s more inspired acting after recent years of phoning it in for a paycheck.
Big star Ford aside, Helgeland was wise to fill out the rest of the roles with recognizable character actors. While he isn’t in the movie for too long, Christopher Meloni gets one of the more memorable parts as trainer Leo Durocher, who satisfying puts the rest of the team in its place when they create a petition to stop playing as long as Robinson is there. John C. McGinley gets an amusing bit as broadcaster Red Barber, and Lucas Black has a nice part as Pee Wee Reese, one of the few team players who openly sticks up for Robinson. One of the neat and more fulfilling things about the movie is that although Robinson is certainly the central focus, the supporting characters get enough dimension and definition to make them stand out and the movie feel more complete.
That’s why “42” works as well as it does. On the outside, it looks and unfolds like many other inspirational sports movies, hitting the right audience pleasing notes of rousing excitement without really taking risks with the material. If this can be overlooked, the movie yields very gratifying results, and the breakout performance from Boseman will most likely win you over even if the rest of the movie doesn’t. In this age of darkly cynical movies, having one come along that is unabashedly feel-good and made so well is quite refreshing.