’42’, which is the answer to the ultimate question in the universe, is also that historic and legendary uniform number held by Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. Brian Helgeland’s bio-pic film tells a polished and engaging version of the story of the baseball hero who changed the nation. With a phenomenal performance from Chadwick Boseman, both fans of baseball and a younger crowd who may have never heard of the baseball player will eat this film up. The box office will draw some decent money, even if the director tries to hit us over the head with what we’re supposed to feel.
We focus on the years 1945-1947 as we segue into last part of the film, which is Robinson’s first year as an actual MLB player. Similar to the 1950 ‘Jackie Robinson Story’ (where Robinson played himself), in one of the vital scenes here, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) asks Robinson if he has what it takes to keep a cool head while his teammates, fans and opposing players harass him about of the color of his skin. And that’s one of the main reasons Robinson was a hero. Not only did he impress everyone on the baseball field, he also showed great courage and restraint against his aggressors.
Rickey, maybe a man before his time, but certainly wanting to make a difference in the world socially and racially, hires Robinson to the Montreal Royals farm team. There, we see Robinson taunted by his manager and teammates, who go so far as to make him sleep separately from the team while on the road. But just like a good father, Rickey always says the right things at the right moments and reminds Robinson to show his anger and voice on the field.
On opening day in Jersey City, Robinson hits a powerful home run, to which his manager says, “He might be superhuman after all.” That piece of dialogue isn’t necessary, and the film is riddled with instances like this. Rather than have the characters’ actions tell the story on their own, the movie always forces some piece of dialogue to tell us exactly what we need to feel. This flaw isn’t a huge problem, but it’s annoying and happens too often.
Throughout the film, we see a fair share of the racism that was hurdled towards Robinson. His teammates sign petitions to not play with him. An obnoxious manager named Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) pitches the n-word and every other derogatory term at the ball player. However, all of these terrible moments for Robinson are almost immediately redeemed by some just punishment in the form of a victory or great play. On the other end of the spectrum, Robinson has a few supporters of integrating the races in sports, such as manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) and a couple of colleagues who try to make it easier for him.
With the use of CG work, some of the baseball fields and stadiums looked amazing, as if the cast and crew were really in the ’40s making a baseball film. The wardrobe and settings are spot-on. Harrison Ford does a good job as Rickey, however his character seems to only go one direction – the father figure who doles out good advice. It’s a strong performance, but not much depth there. Tudyk and Meloni are great when they’re on-screen. And I was very happy to see John C. McGinley play radio announcer Red Barber. McGinley, mostly known as Dr. Cox on ‘Scrubs’, is very animated and a lot of fun.
Boseman shines as the celebrated Robinson. Not only is he a plausible athlete, but his charm and his dramatic sense of keeping his anger at bay show off his acting chops. Since Robinson really had nobody to talk to about his difficult times during this period in his life other than his wife, I would have thought that his spouse should have a more prominent role in the film, but that’s not the case. I would have liked to see a bit more of their relationship, if only to see Robinson’s escape from all of the hatred.
’42’ is a very good movie that may inspire the younger crowd. Robinson’s story is a great one, and it’s told here with grace and class. Even if Helgeland hasn’t quite hit a home run, ’42’ is still a solid triple.