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Review: 42 (2013)

42 (2013)

Directed by: Brian Helgeland

Premise: The story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the first African American to play on a Major League Baseball team.

What Works: 42 is a feel-good crowd pleaser and a very successful sports movie. A lot of historical films tend to be self-important and come across as stuffy. The filmmakers of 42 do not diminish the drama but they do remember to have fun and there is a surprising amount of humor in the movie. The filmmakers of the best sports films realize that the struggle for athletic prowess is really about some deeper or broader human concern. In 42 that issue is the history of American racial segregation and the moviemakers tell a story of resistance to racism and intolerance. That’s not entirely new; pictures like The Great White Hope, The Hurricane, and even Cool Runnings have addressed similar issues in the context of sports. But when compared to some more recent films dealing with similar topics, 42 is all the more impressive. There is a wonderfully staged yet heartbreaking moment in which a white baseball fan spews racial epithets at Jackie Robinson and after a moment of hesitation his son joins in; this is a subtle but powerful moment and although it only takes a few minutes of screen time it says a lot about the generational passage of racism but also the way that bigotry can poison something as pure as a baseball game. Moments like this distinguish 42 from a lot of recent films like The Blind Side and The Help, which dealt with racism in obtuse, oversimplified, and often condescending ways. Aside from the thematic content, 42 is a very well made picture. The set design and costumes have an authentic and lived-in look and the cinematography evokes the flavor of 1940s baseball. The scenes of ball play are kinetic and have sometimes visceral detail of dirt and grass. But the element of 42 that is most impressive is its casting, which is perfect from the lead roles down to the minor characters. Chadwick Boseman plays Jackie Robinson and the actor makes him a genuinely human character instead of the mythical figure that he has become in the popular imagination. Harrison Ford nearly steals the show as Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Ricky and his work in 42 is one of the actor’s best performances. This film also benefits from a lot of very well cast minor roles such as John G. McGinley as broadcaster Red Barber and Alan Tudyk as Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman.

What Doesn’t: 42 is very good but it is no Raging Bull or even Rocky. The main weakness of this film is its lack of focus. The filmmakers do not have a take on Jackie Robinson as a character other than as someone who struggled with racism. Actor Chadwick Boseman does a very good job in the role but the script is shortsighted. Much of the movie consists of Robinson at bat, swinging at pitches while incurring racial slurs. The movie ends up repeating the same scenario over and over again but Robinson does not really change over the course of the story. That may be the point, as it is the people around him who are changed by his resistance, but the filmmakers miss an opportunity to do something more with Robinson as a protagonist and he is ultimately a flat character. The story lacks a concrete goal for him and the team to work toward and that comes to hurt 42 in the ending. When the picture arrives at its conclusion it is unclear exactly what has been won or affirmed.  

Bottom Line: 42 is a very pleasant and uplifting story. It may not tell us anything new about Jackie Robinson but it is smart, sturdily made, well-acted, and very entertaining.

Episode: #436 (April 28, 2013)