Before I start this review, I think it’s necessary to state that I’m an unabashedly big fan of baseball, and especially its history. That’s not to say I wasn’t able to look at “42” from a critical perspective. While one can admittedly say that “42” turns up the cheese-dial in quite a few moments of the film, great––if sometimes melodramatic––performances by Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson) and Harrison Ford (Branch Rickey) help portray the inspirational true story of the first black player in Major League Baseball.
The movie starts out a bit overly dramatic with Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey. He declares that he wants to sign a black player, not just because he believes one of the Negro League players deserves a shot in the big leagues, but because he also believes it would earn the Dodgers more money. After mentioning a few other future big leaguers (Roy Campanella, Satchel Paige), he eventually decides on Robinson because of his toughness.
Boseman brings Robinson’s toughness to the screen in one of the early dramatic parts of the film, when Rickey first pulls Robinson into his office to discuss coming to spring training. At one point, after Robinson has repeatedly questioned why Rickey was giving him this chance, Rickey starts berating him with possible insults and racial slurs that opponents and fans might start throwing at him to the point of nearly being confrontational. Harrison’s performance as the shrewd old G.M. brought another level of tension to the scene, as it did throughout the film, alongside Boseman showing the fiery-yet-restrained side of Robinson.
One of the best points of tension comes in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) badgers Robinson with the n-word over and over, and Robinson has to keep ignoring it. During one at-bat, Robinson is visibly shaken, and after getting out, grabs a bat and angrily stares at Chapman before quickly going into the locker room tunnel to avoid confrontation. The tunnel is shown in darkness with the sun shining brightly in the doorway to the field. This shot suggests that the only way Robinson can make it is to just keep playing. Robinson breaks his bat on the wall in frustration, but is eventually comforted by Rickey and returns to the field to keep playing in spite of prejudice.
If I had one major criticism of the “42,” it would be that, while inspirational, it bashes you over the head with sentimentality. The score is often overwhelming at points where the dialogue of the characters could do just fine for drama, and some of that dialogue is very predictable if you’ve ever watched an “inspirational” sports movie. Also, the fact that Robinson got a hit every time and made every play for the first half of the movie caused a bit of eye-rolling. The often-used slow pans and close-ups were occasionally good for dramatic effect, but often felt like the film was trying too hard to be serious.
What director and script writer Brian Helgeland (“Robin Hood,” “A Knight’s Tale”) could have done was push the envelope a little more, possibly delving deeper into who Jackie Robinson really was. For what it was, “42” was satisfiable and an apt tribute to a legend of American sports. Boseman as the young, fiery Robinson and Ford as the old-but-wise Rickey truly helped provide just enough for the film to be good. I was just hoping for spectacular.
Rating: 3.25 stars