A Solid Triple
The peril of a sports-themed film is that the genre is prone formulaic predictability and feel-good contrivance, which often come at the expense of emotional depth. So those with reservations about the new Jackie Robinson biopic “42” are justified in being reluctant – especially considering the nearly mythological nature of the story depicting the legendary figure who broke the Major League Baseball color barrier.
But rather than swing for the fences at every heroic moment in Robinson’s life and produce a hand-wringing highlight reel, the filmmakers have focused the story on a relatively short but crucial part of Robinson’s career. A terrific cast helps lift “42” above the crowd pleasingly routine fare typical of the genre, producing a solid “triple” of a baseball movie that is about much more than balls and strikes.
In his first starring role, Chadwick Boseman (simply marvelous) plays Jackie, the young sharecroppers’ son who would become a four sport star at UCLA and who barely avoided being court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of an Army bus. Accustomed to being harassed for the color of his skin, Robinson’s talent as a baseball player in the negro leagues was brought to the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (a perfectly crotchety but sincere Harrison Ford) by a journalist for a black newspaper named Wendell Smith (Andre Holland).
Fans and even some teammates were reluctant to embrace what many felt was a threat to the game, understandable considering that the year Robinson started at first base for the Dodgers, 1947, segregation was prevalent in nearly every facet of daily life. But Rickey, seeing the kid’s talent, knew it would bring championship pennants to Ebbets Field (wonderfully recreated by CGI) and the money that came with those titles.
Several moments stand out, including one hard-to-watch scene that recreates the verbal abuse Jackie took while in the batter’s box from opposing Phillies manager Ben Chapman (a sharply sneering Alan Tudyk), including a barrage of the “N-word,” the use of which likely sets a record for most uses in a PG-13 movie.
Robinson’s delayed eruption in the tunnel beyond the dugout and Rickey’s tender consolation are delicately handled and are all the more effective for it. The baseball scenes feel real, and the cast appears natural in its element. The plot of “42” features prominently the loving support of Robinson’s wife Rachel, with another standout performance by a newcomer, Nicole Beharie.
Yes “42” is an underdog story about the evils of racism and one man’s triumph with the help of a few faithful confidants. Theme-wise this doesn’t make for groundbreaking material, but uber-talented writer-director Brian Helgeland (“Mystic River,” “L.A. Confidential”) avoids paint-by-numbers sentimentality and delivers a wonderful film that strikes an authentic chord in all the right places.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language.