“You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back — and I’ll give you the guts.”
More than any sport, baseball is all about numbers. Unfortunately, some of those numbers — like 73 (home runs in a single season) and 500 (career homers) — mean a little less in light of the steroid era. Others, like 56 (Joe DiMaggio’s legendary hitting streak), seem destined to live on forever. The most significant number on that shortlist might be 42, worn by Jackie Robinson when he broke Major League Baseball’s color line on April 15, 1947. 42 — the film, not the number — is significant for a somewhat surprising reason. The movie succeeds as rousing, crowd-pleasing entertainment by functioning less as a straight-up biopic and more as the story of how Robinson became, arguably, the country’s first African-American crossover star.
42 leads off with a brisk opening montage chronicling the end of World War II — and the return of some of the country’s greatest baseball players from overseas. At the time, MLB had 16 teams and 400 players, none of whom were black. Brooklyn Dodgers exec Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides he wants to sign the sport’s first African American player, in part to court his city’s black wallets. (Rickey figures their money is as green as everyone else’s.) He quickly settles on Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a four-sport star at UCLA whose Army career had been derailed by a court martial related to an incident where he refused to move to the back of a bus.
The film follows Robinson through spring training and a 1946 season spent in the minor leagues with the Montreal Royals before he’s called up to the majors by the Dodgers at the start of the following year. Robinson’s strength of character — the thing that made Rickey choose him in the first place — helps him deal with the relentless racial attacks from fans, opposing players and teammates. That same strength of character — on top of his gritty, sparkling play on the field — is what eventually wins (most of) those same teammates over and helps eradicate the sport’s color line for good.
Writer/director Brian Helgeland is working from a pretty familiar template. The history-making courage Robinson displayed in the face of extreme prejudice has been captured in films ranging from Glory and Men of Honor to The Great Debaters. On top of that, even casual sports fans know who Jackie Robinson is and what he accomplished, so I worried 42 wouldn’t have anything new to say. Instead, Helgeland — who has had more success with his screenplays (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) than his directorial efforts (the underrated Payback, A Knight’s Tale) — tells this familiar story with a great eye for period detail and a welcome, unexpected charge.
The advertising for 42 (see the trailer below) has mostly eschewed the predictable “inspirational” tone in favor of making the movie seem, well, cool. Helgeland’s film follows suit as the director walks the fine line of making a period piece that doesn’t feel totally dated. The baseball scenes — particularly whenever Jackie gets on base — are lively and have style that isn’t distracting. The filmmaker was also smart to focus on a two-year period in Robinson’s career rather than trying to tell his entire life story. The court martial and Robinson’s issues with his absentee father are alluded to, but don’t halt the movie’s momentum. The narrower focus also allows Helgeland to explore underrepresented parts of the Robinson experience, including the families who took Jackie in when he was in town (because he wasn’t allowed to stay in hotels with the rest of the team). There’s also room for character moments — like a little boy blindly adopting his father’s prejudice the way kids automatically root for whatever teams their dads like — as well as totally warranted shots at the city of Pittsburgh.
Boseman, a relative newcomer, is impressive well beyond his strong resemblance to Robinson and his athletic prowess. By nature, a lot of his work is restrained. Boseman still managed to capture Robinson’s charm (mostly on display in his scenes with the lovely Nicole Beharie as wife Rachel) and the on-the-field brashness that allowed Jackie to discombobulate opposing pitchers. Boseman may be the new kid on the block, but the film’s breakout performance comes from the 70-year-old Hollywood icon. Harrison Ford has looked perpetually grumpy on screen for the better part of this millennium. So I was delighted to see him come alive as Branch Rickey, in what is easily the most transformative work the actor has ever done. At times, Ford is unrecognizable under makeup and padding, but his performance — playing Rickey as a something of a crazy old man who just doesn’t care what other people think anymore — always shines through. Rickey is alternately maverick-y and paternal, though I wish Helgeland didn’t add the sentimental hogwash about how Jackie made Rickey love baseball again. (I guess it’s not about the money anymore.) If this movie were coming out in November, the Oscar buzz surrounding Ford would be much louder.
The rest of the cast is filled with good actors making strong impressions in a limited amount of time. I thoroughly enjoyed Christopher Meloni’s (Oz, Law & Order: SVU) take on womanizing Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, who would start an elephant at first base if it helped him win the pennant. Max Gail (Barney Miller) plays Burt Shotton, who reluctantly comes out of retirement to guide the team, but then isn’t asked to do a single thing. Alan Tudyk (Firefly) is a truly nasty piece of work — and a hiss-worthy villain — as Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who singlehandedly put the film’s PG-13 rating in serious jeopardy with his racist taunts. John C. McGinley (Scrubs) also pops up as a radio announcer who favors vivid descriptions. The Dodger teammates that really stand out are the friendlier ones like Lucas Black as incumbent shortstop Pee Wee Reese and Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, who just wants Jackie to know it’s ok for them to shower together.
Helgeland does succumb to the tendency that writers who direct their own scripts have of not trimming some of the fat. Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) is a significant figure — the first African American in the Baseball Writers Association America — but is ultimately dispensable here. (I’d rather see Smith get his own movie, to be honest.) Helgeland also can’t help but include a baseball-loving boy inspired by Jackie who grows up to be…thankfully, it’s not who you think.
Late in the game, Rickey tells Robinson about a white boy he saw emulating Jackie’s batting stance. It’s a sly point reminding the audience how Robinson’s influence far predated everyone trying to dunk like one Mike or moonwalk like another in the ‘80s. A lot of us may know the Jackie Robinson story, but 42 works because it brings the man’s history-making journey to vivid life.