Jackie Robinson is the subject of the poorly named 42, an overly sentimental movie about how to change a culture one man at a time that can’t help but be powerful and moving. Unlike other fact-based historical films centering upon an individual, such as Good Night, and Good Luck and Schindler’s List, there is fundamental truth at the core of 42, that one should be judged on his character and rise or fall on his ability, and it helps that the writer and director of the thoughtful, old-fashioned, heartstrings sports movie is the same person. His name is Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire, Robin Hood) and he is white.
That a white artist is so moved to tell this tale of an American baseball player who broke the color barrier, led by a Bible-thumping sports businessman who simply wants to get into heaven (Harrison Ford) and that he tells it with honorable intentions and skill is a sign of how much has changed since the Dodgers first hired a black athlete to play ball. The writing is crisp, for the most part, with some outstanding lines that make you want to cheer and the leisurely plot moves along. The score by Mark Isham is too much and the cliches seem inevitable since we’ve seen this kind of movie many times and some inconsistencies – rows of little pig-tailed girls asking for a baseball player’s autograph in 1947 and Pittsburgh being the butt of jokes – are off the mark but 42 offers an important and uniquely American tale.
That’s why you shouldn’t expect the usual race-baiters (you know who they are) to praise this movie, unless they think they can gain from doing so. With an actor I’ve never heard of named Chadwick Boseman, who’s a dead ringer for the good-looking Jackie Robinson, with Nicole Beharie as his wife, playing talented Robinson as an intelligent, proud athlete who used both his charm and being underestimated to his advantage on and off the baseball diamond, 42 does right by Mr. Robinson. As with Walk the Line, Lincoln and other well-made biographically-themed pictures, (including The Iron Lady, about the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), we don’t really get to know the subject in the deepest sense. Instead, we get a glimpse of his essential characteristics at particular points in time.
But it is a look at the whole man, from his rejection of a moral obligation to serve others – “we don’t owe the world a thing” – to his insistence on knowing why Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who recruited him to play baseball for Brooklyn, did so and what’s in it for him. In one of the best scenes, and contrary to sports and black stereotypes, Jackie Robinson is an equal to his wife during a scene in which he admits that a racist almost got the best of him and it is refreshing to see a hero with fallibility, not feet of clay. As we move from racist Florida and the South, which get off too easy as far as I’m concerned, to Philadelphia and southern Ohio, regions hardly known for racial tolerance, Jackie Robinson faces irrational ideas and actions from teammates, fans and other teams. Some of them change, some do not, and the young black couple from southern California – where the Dodgers play today – adjust to the new normal. Rickey, capably portrayed by Ford playing crusty to the hilt, guides Jackie Robinson and the ball club along the way, dodging Catholics, bureaucrats and others who stand in the way of justice and objectivity about what it means to play – and what it takes to win.
In fact, playing to win and make money is one of the better themes in 42, which unabashedly endorses money as the root of all good; money is neither black nor white, as one character says, it’s green. Though there’s not enough baseball in the sepia-toned film, which features too many characters tagging along, sports scenes and the plot’s pace feel a bit like a day at the ballpark. Time is suspended and winning is everything which, in this case, means winning men’s minds one by one, inning by inning, run by run. Evoking America’s racist past with key symbols, from buses, trains and fields to Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning towering in the background as a team struggles to unite, 42 cashes in its lessons about a great baseball player and honorable man who should be remembered for refusing to sit in the back of the bus – yes, Jackie Robinson did that, too – so he could be his best and play ball just like everyone else.