The baseball movie is a tricky thing. It can produce films like “The Pride of the Yankees” or “Field of Dreams.” Films as perfect and classic as Ken Griffey Jr.’s homerun swing. However, it can also produce “Benchwarmers” and “Major League: Back to the Minors,” which are more akin to Michael Jordan’s swing (aka not good), so it can really go either way. Fortunately, “42” is much closer to the former.
“42,” as the posters say, is the true story of an American legend. It tells the story of how Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) became the first African-American to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. However, as the film shows, he did not do it alone.
The idea was Branch Rickey’s (Harrison Ford), the Dodgers general manager. In 1946, when the film begins, Rickey tells his staff that he wants to do something important for baseball and break the color barrier, because to him all money is the same, whether it comes from black fans or white fans. He says the only color he cares about is green.
He does not let a poor reception from his staff and the league stop him though, so he begins the search for the right player to make history. He decides on Robinson because he had the necessary toughness to go with his high skill level.
From there, the film focuses on Robinson as he deals with the pressure of carrying history on his back. He attempts to adjust to his new team, while the team decides if they will play along with Rickey’s experiment.
This movie is not perfect, but it is very, very good.
Writer/director Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) makes the interesting choice to only focus on Robinson’s first season with the Dodgers — ultimately a smart decision. It keeps the pacing of the film up. At a little over two hours, the film never really drags. While it could have been interesting to get a birth-to-death biopic of Robinson, a more focused approach works to the film’s advantage.
It is good to see the return of Harrison Ford. It has been some time since he has been in a movie worth seeing — though 2010’s “Morning Glory” is a guilty pleasure of mine. His supporting role as Rickey is a reminder that Ford is one of the great actors of his time. He adds a needed gravitas to the character that lifts up the scenes he has with Boseman or any of the other actors who portray the Dodgers.
That is not to say that Boseman does not hold up his end of the story. Playing an American icon is no easy task, and Boseman does it rather well, especially when you consider that this is his first major role. His performance is reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington, proof that he has a bright future ahead of him.
The rest of the cast is strong as well, full of character actors who seem to relish the chance to bring to life an important story, while simultaneously enjoying the period nature of the film.
John C. McGinley, of “Scrubs” fame, appears as Red Barber, the Dodgers radio broadcaster. He does the quintessential 40s-era, Brooklyn accent with little similes that you would expect to hear from the guy who mentored Vin Scully.
Alan Tudyk plays Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies and an all around bigot. Of all the uses of the racial slurs in the film, Tudyk has most of them. It is a rare antagonistic performance for him, but he does it so well.
There is more to this film than just the solid acting. The recreations of famous ballparks like Shibe Park (Philadelphia), Crosley Field (Pittsburgh) and most importantly and impressively, Ebbets Field (Brooklyn) is enough to give any baseball fan shivers.
If this film has a weakness, which I would submit it barely does, it is its cheesiness or over dramatic tendencies — moments that do not come too often. In a film tackling such important issues as racism and segregation, it is easy to slip into from time to time. A scene of a character getting put in their place comes across too fake and insincere. Moments like these seem only to exist to get a reaction out of the audience, rather than serve the story.
The downsides here are few though. “42” is a worthy addition to the list of great baseball movies and the sports-film genre in general. However, the story of Robinson’s triumph in the face of discrimination is a monumental moment in U.S. history, recreated here with strong enough acting performances to appease even the non sports fan.
“42,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language. Running time: 128 minutes. A-