2 1/2 out of 4 stars
It's more than a tad ironic that baseball -- the slowest moving professional team sport in real life -- consistently provides the basis for the best sports movies. With subject matter as ripe as, if not more so than, "Pride of the Yankees," "Eight Men Out" and a scant few others, "42" could have, as Marlon Brando said in "On the Waterfront," "been a contender" for greatness but is merely just pretty good.
Although he was probably not intending to do so, writer/director Brian Helgeland has taken one of baseball's most groundbreaking historical events and reduced it to little more than a salty after-school TV movie. What has served Helgeland so well in past efforts ("L.A. Confidential," "Payback," "Mystic River") -- nuance, economy, a silver tongue and a golden ear -- is absent from "42." It is ham-handed, oversimplified and feels crafted for an audience that has never seen a baseball game or heard of Jackie Robinson.
Definitely not intending to do so, Robinson (Chadwick Boseman in a stunning breakout performance) was nonetheless transformed into a civil rights icon when he became the first black man to play on a Major League baseball team. He wasn't intending to "make a statement," but rather just to play a game he loved at the highest level possible. Suffering like Job and exhibiting the patience of a saint, Robinson forever changed the sport for the better and shook to the core what was previously an odorous, short-sighted white-only boys club.
Ignoring Robinson's childhood and post-baseball life, Helgeland's movie covers only three years: 1945 through 1947. This isn't such a bad thing per se, as this was the time frame that put Robinson on the map, so to speak, but is also a period any baseball fan with even a passing knowledge of the game is already fully aware.
In any other sports movie, the inclusion of a love interest would come off as patronizing and a way to capture the female/non-sports fan demographic but that is not the case with "42." Robinson's success on the field owed a great deal to his grounded private life and in particular his rock-solid marriage to Rachel (Nicole Beharie, dangerously cute). In one of the few interesting scenes found in the first act, California native Rachel sees her first "White Only" restroom at a Florida airport and decides to go in -- much to Jackie's chagrin. It makes it clear that she was going to be a "woman beside" and not a "woman behind" her man.
In something of a semi-self-serving move, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey (a superb Harrison Ford) took it upon himself to be the one to shatter MLB's color barrier and break the sport's oldest unwritten law. Pegging Robinson more for his steely temperament than his considerable athleticism, Rickey knew if the sport didn't change soon it would eventually fall out of favor with a changing American mindset and, like Robinson, never wavered and solidly stood his ground. He -- certainly by design -- became as important to the civil rights movement as Robinson or any 19th-century abolitionist.
After 45 or so minutes of often tedious and repetitive exposition, Helgeland finally gets to the meat of the story: Robinson's first year with the Dodgers. Knowing he was facing what Rickey coined a "tempest," Robinson entered the team's locker room and was met with crushing hate and resentment. The majority of the team was from the South and made no effort in voicing their displeasure. The one exception was Kentucky native Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), whose embrace of Robinson would lead to a different yet still boneheaded form of danger and stupidity.
The most chilling and telling section of the movie occurs in Robinson's first road trip when the Dodgers played the Phillies in Philadelphia. Warned in advance by that team's owner not to include Robinson in the roster "or else," team manager and unapologetic racist Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) hurled a barrage of racial epithets at Robinson from just outside of the Phillies' dugout that is nothing less than throttling, disquieting and jarring. It is to Helgeland's immense credit that he crafted the scene to be so raw and unforgiving and to Tudyk for playing with such conviction and believability a character so patently loathsome and evil.
It won't come as much of a surprise to dedicated baseball fans that the movie is at its best when there's a game being played. Sticklers for details will also be pleased that Helgeland's script comes as close to the actual truth as any commercial "based on" bio-flick could possibly get. (Warner Bros.)