Jim Reed reviews "42" the Jackie Robinson biopic

42

Written and Directed by Brian Helgeland

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, and Nicole Beharie

Review by Jim Reed.

Jackie Robinson is a man most decent-minded people appreciate to a certain extent, but few outside of baseball know to what tremendous lengths he was forced to go in order to widen the path that history laid before him. Writer/Director Brian Helgeland’s film comes about halfway close to helping contemporary audiences feel the weight of Jackie’s trials, but this is not to say it is a bad film. To do total justice to his hardships probably would have required an R rating, which no studio making an uplifting baseball film about Jackie Robinson would have ever done. As it stands I am generally pleased with the film, as everyone involved seems to have understood just how important a man Robinson continues to be. 

The acting is fine, nothing sensational, though relative unknown Chadwick Boseman impressed me as Jackie. He played the character as the American archetypal strong and quiet, though certainly not silent, which worked well leading up to one of the film’s significant scenes toward the end of the second act. Harrison Ford was actually quite good in this as well. Not that I was expecting Ford to crash and destroy the legacy of Branch Rickey along with the legacy of his own career, but nevertheless it is difficult for a superstar actor (who is usually only known for playing himself anyway, which isn’t a bad thing) to relinquish enough of himself so as to not completely take over the film. Rather, he was understated, which suited the film and character well. 

This is a photo of the real Jackie Robinson

As a baseball movie, this is one of the best in a long time (outside of Moneyball, which was tremendous). I hate in baseball films when the actors look like, to steal the famous Crash Davis line: they couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat. Equally bad is when the opposing villain player is so hulked up he looks like he’s coming straight from a cage match at WrestleMania, and then still has the worst swing mechanics in the history of charting swing mechanics. This film doesn’t have any of that. The baseball sequences in 42are actually pretty extraordinary. The actors could turn a double play, the speed of the game is correct, as are 1940s pitch and swing mechanics, and the base running scenes are magnificently shot. The film’s designers did a magnificent job capturing the era, as well as those fantastic old baseball uniforms and ballparks. The scenes in the ballparks were easily my favorite of the film. 

I was pleased to see that the filmmakers did not shy away from the fact that Rickey and Robinson’s mutual affinity was out of their shared Methodist tradition. Modern thought generally hates recognizing that anything good can come of any religion, much less Christianity, and film has, for the most part, followed suit. But in cases such as Robinson it is nearly impossible to tell the story without at least touching on the why and how of what he was able to accomplish. Otherwise it neuters the particular story, and the legacy of the man. 

Ultimately, the film is a bit overrun by Mark Isham’s triumphant, swelling musical score. For the most part, I don’t need to be told how to feel, and at a certain point the music no longer lifts up, but cuts down the emotional power of the film. The most powerful scene of the movie for me took place with minimal or no music whatsoever, which is a wise choice, because as Jackie is breaking down we are transported into the tunnel with him, witnessing his anguish without being distanced from it. The filmmakers set the audience up to marvel at the strength and bravery of Robinson, but they could have created something far more powerful: an experience that allows us to consider ourselves, not in Jackie’s shadow, but in his skin, as ones who are encountering afresh the anguish of the marginalized, and the transformation of the hardened human soul. 

Grade: B-