42: The Jackie Robinson Biopic Is a Solid Hit

Writer/director Brian Helgeland's inspirational telling on the Jackie Robinson story is not particularly challenging, but it captivates.

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D. Stevens / Legendary Pictures Productions LLC / Warner Bros.

Writer/director Brian Helgeland’s warmly inspirational 42 approaches the Jackie Robinson story as something glowing with as much promise as the youthful Robinson embodied in 1945, when Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey began seriously plotting to make him the player to break baseball’s color barrier. Robinson’s hardscrabble early life, his abandonment by his father and brushes with racist and repressive authority figures are all hinted at in 42, but the movie continually pats us on the arm, assuring us that Robinson (played by relative unknown Chadwick Boseman) shall overcome, and with him, America. “All future now,” Rickey (Harrison Ford) says, gazing at his recruit. “No past.” 42’s purpose is not to make us feel shame in our national shortcomings, at least not primarily, but pride in his triumph.

Is there anything wrong with this? Robinson’s widow Rachel worked closely with Helgeland on the film; so it has the family’s endorsement. It’s an easily engaging movie, well acted, lushly photographed. But some will likely label the movie too soft because of the way it so intently telegraphs, through swelling instrumentals and a warm bath of lighting, that things are going to improve, for Jackie Robinson, for his wife Rachel (played by Nicole Beharie from Shame) and his many admirers, including Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), the sweet black journalist Rickey dispatches to keep an eye on Robinson. Robinson running out Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, wearing the number 42 on his Dodgers jersey was a key moment in the history of the long march toward racial equality. (If it gives you chills just thinking about it, you’ll eat up how fantastic it looks on the big screen.) But a child walking out of 42 would be forgiven for thinking everything was settled after that season. That the jerks backed down and the beauty of a man named Jackie Robinson, who danced between bases and always held his head high, was enough to conquer all. To explain that the agonies and heartbreak of the Civil Rights Era still lay ahead would prick the happy balloon 42 sends into the air. It’s a conversation starter then, a perfectly respectable thing for a movie to be.

Others will have quibbles with Ford’s Rickey, portrayed as the classic savior figure, the pure-hearted white man who enables a black man to get ahead. He functions much like The Help‘s Skeeter Phelan or The Blind Side‘s Leigh Anne Tuohy; there are moments when 42 threatens to become as much his story as Robinson’s. This gnawed at me, a nagging voice tugging at the pleasure of seeing Ford, growling like an elderly pit bull guarding its bowl, projecting more energy and enthusiasm than he has shown in a film since he was engaged in hand-to-hand combat on Air Force One some 15 years ago. It’s a meaty, cigar-chomping role, the kind that usually goes to great character actors, not a former hotty like Han Solo, and Ford treats it like a gift, unwrapping it with obvious delight. When shortstop “Pee Wee” Reese (Lucas Black) comes to Rickey’s office and hands over a threatening letter he’s received because of his willingness to play alongside Robinson, Rickey goes over to a file cabinet and starts pulling out file folders fat with letters. Pee Wee asks what they are.

“I’ll tell you what they aren’t,” Ford says, starting with the growl and building up to a roar. “Letters from the Jackie Robinson fan club!” Cue the next scene, where Robinson takes the field in Cincinnati and is instantly abused by a stadium full of hostile white fans. As he stands there, reeling from a fresh venue of hatred, Reese, now enlightened, famously jogs over to stand next to number 42 and then puts a cautious arm around him (captured in a sculpture that stands outside the minor league ballpark in Coney Island). References are made to the Civil War and the Kentucky-born Reese makes a dopey remark about how close the South was to winning. To which Robinson shakes his head in disbelief and says something along the lines of, better luck next time. “There won’t be a next time,” Reese says, with surety.

The movie gives us continual little satisfactions like this, moments of resounding niceness to counter the hideousness of say, the Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) repeatedly yelling the n-word at Robinson whenever he’s at bat. Tudyk may be a lovely man in person but it seems the makeup artists and lightning technicians did their best to make his Ben Chapman look like a possum. His red-rimmed eyes are at half-mast and he’s pale, pudgy, pasty—as unpleasant to look at as to hear. A quick Google search reveals that the real Chapman, while no Han Solo, was not quite as unappetizing as Helgeland’s film makes him out to be. Will this have an effect of affording the white audience a comforting distance from the things he’s saying?

Conversely, there’s a whitewashing affect in a sequence when the Dodgers, training in Panama and aware that Rickey plans to bring Robinson in from the minors (the movie covers the time frame where Robinson left the Negro leagues to play with the Montreal Royals, starting in the spring of 1946) begin to organize a strike of sorts. A small group writes up a petition saying they won’t play if he does, and goes from hotel room to hotel room, trying to rally support. The players all looked so blandly alike, with their neat short haircuts and white, white skins, that I had a hard time figuring out who was who—the racists all blend together—and found that later on, as the Dodgers started emerging as characters, I couldn’t remember who I was supposed to revile and who didn’t seem so bad; they’re off the hook somehow, especially as they grow into a team.

There’s a great shot of the Dodgers lined up at the beginning of a game, the grey-white uniforms all blending into each other, along with the white faces, until near the end of the line, the eye is called to Boseman’s Robinson. Even well into the movie, it’s a startling image, showing just how alone Robinson was on that field even among so many men in the same uniform. The greatness of the man in real life lends an immediate gravity on any portrayal, but Boseman doesn’t need much help. Boseman is not a hugely close physical match to Robinson, except for perhaps in the power he conveys, but he’s a great choice to play the ball player, unfamiliar enough, despite a decade of small credits here and there, to feel like an athlete, not a movie star playing one. (For such a famous man, Robinson has rarely been a cinematic character. The 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story featured Robinson playing himself. Andre Braugher played him in a 1990 TV movie called The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson.) It’s not easy to play a stoic, but Boseman anchors the movie, and when he smiles, 42, already such a warm story of such cold times, gets even brighter.