Movie review: ‘42’ is a classy look at Jackie Robinson
I’m not a big fan of biopics. There’s always too much of the subject’s life left in or out. If they’re heroes, they’re usually put up on a pedestal, shown in an almost godlike manner. If they’re at the other end of the behavioral spectrum, they’re presented as monsters, and that can get tiring. My favorite bio film remains “The Music Lovers,” the lurid and emotionally violent story of Tchaikovsky.
Neither do I care much for sports films, nor, except for baseball, sports in general. But I do watch the old baseball comedy “It Happens Every Spring” whenever it’s on TV.
Which brings us to the sports biopic “42,” a movie that, to my surprise, engrossed me, moved me, entertained me. It’s the story of Jackie Robinson, second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who wore the number 42 on his back, and was the first black player to make it into the Major Leagues.
After seeing the film, I did some research on Robinson and found that there were enough exploits in his life, even before he was catapulted from the Negro Leagues to the majors in the late-1940s, to provide ample fodder for another movie. But believe me, this one will do for now.
As played by Chadwick Boseman, a busy background actor, here getting his first lead role, Robinson comes across as both uppity and laidback, as a hard-driving athlete and proud man, as someone who knows that he’s making history but in doing so must show a lot of restraint against the personal challenges thrown at him. Boseman is terrific in the part.
He’s matched every step of the way in acting chops and character portrayal by Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the crusty, determined, business-savvy general manager of the Dodgers who got the idea to bring Robinson across the racial barrier. It’s Ford’s best performance in years.
But acting aside, perhaps the reason the film works so well is that aside from keeping Robinson at the center, where he proves himself over and over on the field and at the plate, and showing him as a loving husband and a good man, the excellent script also keeps an eye on the people and events all around him.
This isn’t just a biography; it’s an unflinching study of the times. Racism wasn’t thought of as a bad thing; it was an accepted way of life, at least in the world of baseball. Robinson had to keep his cool when dealing with foul-mouthed, bad-tempered fans and other players, even some of his own teammates.
One of the most difficult parts of the film to take is when Robinson becomes the target of vitriolic Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the hateful manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, who hurls more N bombs at him than anyone uttered in “Django Unchained.”
Yet writer-director Brian Helgeland, while rightfully keeping scenes like that uncomfortable, balances the movie out with people on the other side of the issue – other fans, other players, folks like Branch Rickey – getting their say. There’s even a sidelight of comic moments, courtesy of John C. McGinley as legendary announcer Red Barber, a man responsible for turning some of the most colorful phrases in broadcast booth history.
The movie is a class act all the way through, providing plenty to think about along with some great moments in baseball.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland
With Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, John C. McGinley, Alan Tudyk