(by Dustin Putman
In 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player in Major League Baseball, facing a daunting uphill battle as his love of the game and desire to make something of himself were met with derision and prejudice. Slowly but surely the tides would change - later on that year, two more black athletes were added to the sport - but it wouldn't be easy. In fact, changing the narrow minds of people who are set in their ways continues to be a struggle nearly seventy years later. If such a topic is still relevant and Jackie's particular story an historically monumental one, biographical drama "42" falls back too frequently upon manipulation and speech-giving to get its obvious points across. Though dramatically sound in spurts, the film as a whole, written and directed by Brian Helgeland (2003's "The Order"), lacks the feel and visual panache of a theatrical release and would have been more fitting premiering on cable. Article continues below
Black soldiers fought and risked their lives for the U.S. in WWII, but, when the war ended in 1945, they came home to a place where they were still treated as second-class citizens. Grizzled Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) notices this and dares to shake up the status quo by finding his first African-American talent. "I want a player who has the guts not to fight back," Rickey proclaims, and he believes he's found his man in 26-year-old Kansas City Monarchs short stop Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). Plucked from relative obscurity and into the literal big leagues, Jackie ultimately overcomes bigotry and discrimination from opposing teams and the public to lead the Dodgers to the World Series.
There have been a lot of baseball movies and quite a few have been based on varying true stories. None of these notable accounts should be discounted, but they do need to carve out an individual place for themselves, first and foremost, as films. The formulaic "42" does not, save for in its admittedly gritty verbal depiction of racism in a pre-Civil Rights era. A scene where Jackie must hold in his feelings as he goes up to bat while getting pounded with atrocious, derogatory name-calling from ignorant Phillies coach Ben Chatman (Alan Tudyk) is affecting, as is teammate Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) taking a stand against Jackie's naysayers, and another moment where Jackie's supportive wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) tells him, "If they knew you, they'd be ashamed." Beyond this, the narrative is synthetic and soft, each of Jackie's teammates falling into types and writer-director Brian Helgeland careful to shield the story from the team's ultimate loss in the 1947 World Series playoffs lest it muck up the picture's feel-good tone. Even the written postscripts at the end, telling what happened to all of the main characters, slyly avoids anything that isn't rosy - unless, that is, it is in regards to comeuppances of the antagonists.
In is his first lead role, Chadwick Boseman (2008's "The Express") imbues Jackie Robinson with an inspiring strength and determination, but also a key fallibility. He may be used to facing adversity, but it never gets easier and is only magnified by being placed in such a public position. Boseman plays the role terrifically as written, which is as a heroic figure with few flaws or much complexity. As the forward-thinking, cigar-chomping Branch Rickey, Harrison Ford (2011's "Cowboys and Aliens") aims to disappear into the kind of part that would have been more appropriate for a character actor rather than a movie star of Ford's magnitude. He wavers between convincing and over-the-top, but it's a tall order to shake the looming knowledge that Indiana Jones is playing Branch.
"42" has been keenly scheduled for release only a week or two into this year's baseball season. Die-hard fans of sports history may very well be in heaven. For everyone else, this is a well-meaning but largely forgettable treatment depicting Jackie Robinson's first year playing for the Majors, the tech credits, from the treacly, string-laden music score to the straightforward, brown-tinted cinematography, overemphasizing how the viewer is supposed to think and feel at every turn. With subtlety at a low - a scene where a little boy in the baseball stands repeats the epithetical hate speech of his father only to rethink his actions when he sees his other baseball idols standing up for the black player is amateurishly handled - "42" goes along its way teaching lessons of tolerance through grand-standing sermonizing. Thank goodness, lest viewers otherwise miss the point.