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by Brett Gallman

"A home run trot for the Robinson legend."
3 stars

No sport is more reverent of its heroes than baseball, and few things are more aggrandizing than a Hollywood sports movie, so it follows that “42” layers another bronze coat onto “The Jackie Robinson Story,” a tale that quickly passed into legend even as it was being told. 66 years of distance has added some polish to the story, but it’s every bit as sentimental and syrupy as ever. This is still the myth of Saint Robinson, but what it lacks in nuance it makes up for with earnestness and heart, and it’s astonishingly rousing despite its inevitability.

“42” doesn’t follow the cradle-to-the-grave format as its predecessor, as it instead focuses on the two year period that saw Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) break baseball’s color barrier. Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) planted the seeds for this act of courage shortly after World War II, when he decided that his organization would soon break the unwritten code that kept Major League Baseball segregated since the 1880s. After assuring his associates that it’s a business decision, he has them cull the ranks of the Negro Leagues for a player not only with considerable talent but also with the capacity to withstand the trials and tribulations of such a task.

I’m not sure if it’s technically correct to say that this is a “remake” of the 1950 film that featured Robinson playing/canonizing himself since many of the repeated beats and lines are no doubt based in history, but it feels like writer/director Brian Helgeland is very much sticking to the gospel. Such an approach doesn’t make for much drama, as Robinson and Rickey are unchanging celestial bodies that catch everyone in their orbits to put them on the correct course towards post-racial America. So it was written and so it shall be.

Robinson ascends even higher, of course, as the messiah swaddled in a cotton uniform, and the film isn’t shy about the Christ-like implications. But if this is a Christ story, it’s sort of a hokey passion play with a mostly unfailing savoir; while it’s not surprising that the film doesn’t go to great lengths to present Robinson as fallible, it almost has the effect of making him feel larger than life.

There’s one scene that truly captures the harrowing trials of Robinson’s rookie year: during a game in Philadelphia, the Phillies’ unabashedly racist manager (Alan Tudyk) hurls epithets that visibly shake Robinson more than the constant barrage of high-and-tight fastballs. Dispirited, he retreats to the clubhouse tunnel and unleashes a rage that feels unbecoming but also very human—it’s one of the few times Boseman is allowed to emote beyond the cool, cocksure façade that Robinson likely put on as a defense mechanism. On cue, Rickey appears as the reassuring Father figure to reassure the Son that he must turn the other cheek in order to achieve victory.

I’d say that I won’t spoil how the exchange ends, but “42” is the type of film that comes completely spoiled by history; still, this small, quiet moment amidst the bombast and consecration provides a brief glimpse into the complex underpinnings. History (and this film) repeatedly tells us that Robinson endured an unfathomably hellish ordeal, but this shows us and even allows us to feel it. If most of the film is the Sunday School retelling, then this represents the rare “Last Temptation” moment that remembers that Robinson actually was nothing more than a human, albeit an extremely courageous and heroic one.

“42” leaves other interesting angles unexplored, including the complex role that Rickey played in the proceedings. When the opening scene presents him as nothing more than a shrewd, calculating businessman, it provides hope that the film won’t shy away from white-washing the utilitarian implications of integrating baseball—after all, it was done to both win the pennant and draw black fans to the ballpark.

However, "42" quickly retreats from this, particularly since Ford reduces Rickey to a collection of jowly displays; Ford’s come across as disinterested in roles recently, but he’s almost too engaged here and becomes something of a glowering cartoon who eventually takes the time to assure Robinson that he’s also motivated by altruism. Having failed to stand up for a black teammate in the past, he resolved himself to revolutionize the game he loves in some fashion, and the exchange is a grace note that works because it’s not just a Hollywood embellishment.

And that’s the key to “42”: for all its schmaltz, it’s quite earnest and is at least resolved to honoring the truth, however overblown it may be delivered here. That the film is full of such trite pap yet still succeeds is a testament to Helgeland’s ability to capture grandiose moments; sure, he kind of does it the easy way by leaning heavily on Mark Isham’s sweeping score, but his cast delivers the feel-good stuff with conviction. “42” is a veritable roster of “That Guys,” all of whom have their moment to reinforce the film’s unsubtle “Racism is Terrible” theme by either playing unrepentant racists who become punch-lines (such as Robinson’s own teammates that petition against his presence) or those individuals who have accepted that times have changed.

Christopher Meloni is particularly great as the latter, though his role as Dodgers manager Leo Durocher is cut short since the skipper was actually suspended for the 1947 season (the film blames this on his serial womanizing but the truth was actually much more complicated). Lucas Black also has a very effective turn as Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese that will leave you wondering why Hollywood hasn’t exploited his natural charisma more.

If nothing else, “42” also has a lot of reverence for the game itself, and Helgeland nails the necessary sense of camaraderie to hammer home its point. The film’s attention to detail is also commendable, as “42” presents a faithful, sepia-toned recreation of baseball’s Golden Age, with doomed locales such as Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds springing back to life with the assistance of John McGinley’s impeccable impersonation of Dodgers radio announcer Red Barber.

Somewhat ironically, the playing field also gives Boseman a chance to inject some personality into Robinson by capturing him in his element. It’s understandable that Robinson’s symbolic exploits have become the story for the past six decades, but “42” reminds us that he was a great ballplayer, particularly when he was wreaking havoc on the base paths. Boseman is a delight to watch as he toys with opposing pitchers, and I wish he had more to do off the field, where he’s reduced to a mostly static everyman in his interactions with his wife (Nicole Beharie) and a pioneering black sports reporter (Andre Holland), two characters that I wish were a bit more substantial. Holland’s Wendell Smith especially gets the short end since he was actually instrumental in recommending Robinson to Rickey, but that wouldn’t quite fit the narrative here, which sometimes insists on absolving white guilt.

There’s a lot of that to go around in “42,” a film that also white-washes while it bronzes; usually, that sort of thing irks me, but it doesn’t ring hollow here, especially since so much of it is rooted in fact (for example, Reese was an invaluable ally during Robinson’s transition and should be anointed as both a great player and a great person). Maybe there should be more indignation and regret that Robinson’s story truly hasn’t healed all wounds; in fact, one of the few heady moments the film has to offer involves a comedic scene between Robinson and a teammate who wonders why he doesn’t shower with the rest of the team. Helgeland plays the exchange for laughs, but it ironically (and likely unintentionally) underscores the not-so-latent locker room homophobia that still persists and prevents openly gay athletes from competing.

Predictably, “42” doesn’t get much more uncomfortable than that—it’s a perfectly safe varnishing that upholds the legend with respect and dignity. Just how predictable is “42?” An early sequence features a precocious child in awe of Robinson, and I suspected that the film would reveal his identity as a future major leaguer during an epilogue that would also remind us that Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on an annual basis.

I went two for two.

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originally posted: 04/16/13 09:59:53
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User Comments

7/25/13 mr.mike Well done , Ford is quite good 4 stars
7/17/13 G Solid movie, very inspirational 4 stars
4/26/13 Marlon Wallace I agree with this review. I was less taken with Boseman though. 3 stars
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  12-Apr-2013 (PG-13)
  DVD: 16-Jul-2013


  DVD: 16-Jul-2013

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