Director: Brian Helgeland
Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Christopher Meloni, John C. McGinley, Lucas Black, Alan Tudyk
Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13 | 122 Minutes
Release Date: April 12, 2013
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, 42 stars Chadwick Boseman as legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson.
The biopic begins with Robinson as an up-and-coming shortstop in the Negro leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, before moving up to the minor leagues, playing second base for the Montreal Royals.
Robinson was signed by Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), making him the first African-American player in Major League Baseball history. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson emerged from the tunnel at Ebbets Field in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform – No. 42 – smashing the league’s color barrier and changing the sport of baseball forever.
Helgeland’s gee-whiz approach to “The True Story of an American Legend” is old-fashioned to a fault. Although the film doesn’t shy away from the hateful prejudice and racism Robinson encountered, 42 is so on-the-nose, so heavy-handed, that it borders on Hallmark Channel Original territory at times.
While the film acts as a highlight reel of Robinson’s rookie year, there’s never a feeling that you’re watching Robinson progress through the season. There’s a walk here, a base hit there, some stolen bases, a few home runs sprinkled throughout – mere reminders that Robinson plays the sport of baseball. Helgeland’s film just isn’t concerned with how important Robinson was to the Dodgers’ 1947 season, in which he earned the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award.
Here’s the thing: 42 is an inspirational and respectful biopic about one of America’s most influential sports icons – but it settles for too little. It’s a surface-level exploration of the subject that deals only in cliches. Rather than letting Robinson’s accomplishments and conduct speak for themselves, Helgeland hammers us over the head with every moment of greatness, as if we won’t appreciate the man’s struggle otherwise.
42 is a sermon on the mound. Every bit of dialogue that’s delivered feels like a preachy monologue and every gesture is exaggerated to simplify humans as virtuous, compassionate angels or evil, racist scumbags. One of those racist scumbags is Philadelphia Phillies Manager Ben Chapman, played by Alan Tudyk.
I never thought I’d see Pirate Steve from Dodgeball assaulting Jackie Robinson with a barrage of racial slurs that would make Mel Gibson cringe, but Tudyk’s constant berating of the Dodgers’ first baseman is important because it unites the team, forcing Dodgers’ Eddie Stanky (Jesse Luken) to defend Robinson. Robinson is no longer a man on his own, unable to fight back. Now he’s got friends who will do his fighting for him.
Chadwick Boseman, who debuted playing another athlete, Syracuse University running back Floyd Little in 2008’s The Express, does an entirely serviceable job as Robinson, and Harrison Ford is adequately grizzled as Rickey – but supporting actors like Christopher Meloni as Dodgers Manager Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as shortstop Pee Wee Reese, and Tudyk’s venomous Chapman fill-out Helgeland’s cast with strong personalities for the stoic Boseman to bounce off of.
Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Nicole Beharie (Shame) as Rachel Isum, who would become Jackie’s wife. Robinson’s relationship with his wife is central to the film’s events – and while it is endlessly sentimental, it’s the only context we get see Robinson in which he isn’t being judged for the color of his skin. Beharie is certainly charming as Rachel Robinson, and it would have been nice to see more emphasis put on Robinson’s faith and his family life as the backbone of his inner-strength in dealing with prejudice and hate.
Despite the heavy-handedness of Helgeland’s movie, 42 works as an inspirational look at a man who overcame incredible adversity to become an American legend. It isn’t the subtle, nuanced character study it should be, but 42 will no doubt please audiences with its easily accessible message and old-fashioned sensibility.
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