Director: Brian Helgeland
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Film Pulse Score: 7/10
Brian Helgeland’s biopic 42 is cut from the same cloth as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. As opposed to telling Jackie Robinson’s life story from the beginning Helgeland focuses on a specific time period in his life. In fact it is very similar to Alfred E. Green’s 1950 biopic The Jackie Robinson Story. The key differences between these two films are that Green’s film does delve into Robinson’s past and Green’s film stars Jackie Robinson as himself. Despite this 42 isn’t lacking because it doesn’t visually present his back story and certainly doesn’t falter in the leading man department thanks to Chadwick Boseman’s solid performance as Robinson.
Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play in the majors. It is certainly an aspect of the game we take for granted now but in the 1940s it was strictly taboo to allow a colored ballplayer on the field with white men; regardless of just how talented they may have been. Robinson’s struggles are only half the story. The other half follows Brooklyn Dodger’s President and GM Branch Rickey’s intention and efforts to integrate coloreds into America’s past time. When Jackie first appears on screen he’s playing for the Negro league club Kansas City Monarchs. We get a tease of just what sort of a player he’s going to be. When Branch Rickey is introduced he is telling key members of his staff that he intends to recruit a Negro ballplayer and then sign him as a Brooklyn Dodger. Rickey has thought this out to the smallest detail. He knows this is going to be a very rough road and he wants a man “who has the guts not to fight back.” The film follows their struggles during Robinson’s first season with the Dodgers where they ultimately won the National League Pennant that year.
Last year Quentin Tarantino received plenty of flack for his excessive use of racial slurs and connotations in his western Django Unchained. The reason for their use was that it was of the time which is true. However, that was a work of fiction but Helgeland’s film is based on fact and he does not shy away from the ever flowing sting of those insults because it truly was of the time and sadly that’s how it was. In the film, the slurs come to a head during a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Brooklyn Dodgers. During the game, Phillies manager Ben Chapman, nicely played by Alan Tudyk, taunts Robinson whenever he’s up to bat. The vitriol displayed is sad, disgusting, uncomfortable and, especially if you’re a Phillies fan, embarrassing. Robinson had stated that this event really brought the Dodgers together as a team and you can see why. There are a number of scenes like this throughout the film but this is the most potent and memorable one.
The film belongs to Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford as Robinson and Rickey, respectively. Boseman does a fine job of conveying the struggle that Robinson is going through as a man who wants to fight back but knows for the greater good he must not. During the scene previously mentioned Boseman does a great job showing Robinson at his limit and breaks down in the hallway beneath the dugout. Further poignancy is added to the scene thanks to Harrison Ford’s fatherly performance. Speaking of Ford, this is the best he’s been in some time. He really gives Rickey that “one of the good guys” bravado that Ford is known for but it is still restrained enough to allow the character to come through. Despite being under makeup and having an added drawl you see and hear Ford but it’s just great to see him with a quality dramatic role for a change. In particular he is quite good when he explains to Robinson why he wanted to bring him to the Majors. The solid supporting cast features Nichole Beharie as Rachel Robinson, Christopher Meloni as Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese.
Helgeland wrote and directed 42 and this is easily the best film he has helmed so far. While it would have been nice to have shown more of Robinson’s past so we can get a better sense of the man the film doesn’t suffer from it. Helgeland uses shorthand to give us Robison’s bio and it works nicely. His direction comes alive when the action takes place on the diamond. He relishes showing Robinson taunting and playing mind games with the opposing team. Intercutting between Robinson and the racism from the stands and on the field affectively added to the tension. One nice touch not so subtly shows how the behavior of a crowd and family can influence the young to do or say something even though you can see they don’t feel right about it. It’s a throw away scene but speaks volumes.
In the annals of sports biographies 42 has hit a stand up double. It lacks in any stand up and cheer moments like Miracle and certainly doesn’t leave your heart swelling like Rudy may have. While the film itself may not stay with you afterwards it at the very least was entertaining while telling a very compelling story. It is still a good film about a sports legend and an important moment not just in sports but human history as well.