As not just a lifelong baseball fan who understands the history of the game, but as a human being who understands the importance of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier within the sport when he started his Hall of Fame career in Major League Baseball in 1947, I am more than bothered by the lack of respect Brian Helgeland’s 42 pays to Robinson’s historical significance. In fact, it is downright insulting to see the story of such an important figure in both the civil rights movement and the 20th century reduced to glorified TV movie that quite often attempts to rewrite history in regards to the issue of racism during the inception Jackie Robinson’s time with the Brooklyn Dodgers with idealistic speeches and a thick layer of sugar coating. It even goes as far as trying to paint those who were against a black man playing baseball against 399 other white players as the minority. In retrospect, we can look at these events and wonder how it was ever an issue, how people couldn’t have seen segregation as being wrong... but, in the moment, it wasn’t so clear, and it’s a tremendous slap in the face to Robinson’s legacy to pretend it was such. The result is a movie with no teeth at all, one that barely deals with the struggle of Jackie Robinson’s rookie season, because it’s too busy replacing the reality of the time with common decency that feels much more politically correct today. 42 is the type of film that is never above pandering, attempting to attract both the black audience because it’s a movie about a historical figure in black history and the white audience who won’t feel so guilty about our treatment of them in the past (even though younger generations weren’t alive when this was happening), because... oh, see... only the really bad people were racist then. Frankly, Jackie Robinson deserved a hell of a lot better than this.
42 plays like a highlight reel of Jackie Robinson’s rookie season, starting off with his time playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro leagues, progressing to his impressive spring training in the minor leagues with the Montreal Royals (the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league affiliate), and leading up and through his rookie year in “The Show” after Dodgers’ executive Branch Rickey determined he was going to bring a black man into Major League Baseball... and yet what’s presented never feels like we’re watching anything particularly special taking place on the field. A rundown here, a stolen base there, homeruns sprinkled about... there’s no context at all Robinson’s exceptional play having any bearing on the Dodgers season whatsoever, something that would seem almost impossible to screw up, especially during a season when the team won 94 games and the National League pennant. It’s a series of moments strung together to fit the structure of a baseball season, but it never feels like we are watching anything of the sort.
Furthermore, what should be an emotionally inspiring story comes across feeling so fake, so manufactured that it completely negates what Robinson meant in the color barrier being torn down for future black ballplayers to be integrated into the game. Every bit of dialogue is a grand speech of idealistic ideas that sound nothing like how real people would talk, unless you wanted to serve their every word as carrying much greater meaning than they ever did. Even a simple invitation for dinner is blown up into a question of “What do you serve when a hero is coming to dinner?” A little boy is seen sitting in the stands, suddenly engaged in prayer that Jackie will do something tremendous at-bat in order to show whites what blacks can do. Every word out of Branch Rickey’s mouth sounds like the makings of a monologue. Nobody ever appears to be talking to anyone, just at the audience... and it’s a frustrating thing to watch, because my own common sense tells me there is no way this is how things went down in 1947. I don’t need the film to be 100% factually accurate, but factually close would be nice.
There are a few performances that stand out within the film, and unfortunately one of them isn’t the man playing Jackie Robinson, Chadwick Boseman, who is in over his head and incapable of elevating the material. Harrison Ford brings his ornery grumble to Rickey, and it works well in his portrayal of the character, because he’s playing a man who operates by his own set of rules. Major League baseball has a color barrier? Well, he’ll just see if that’s going to apply to him. However, it’s one scene between Ford and Boseman where Rickey elaborates on why he did what he did in bringing Jackie to the Dodgers that truly shows how heavy-handed the rest of 42 is. In just a few poignant moments, we get to see what these characters are really about, what they stand for, what they believe in, what they want... something the entire rest of the movie never even attempts to do, opting for the easy to swallow look at history over anything of actual substance.
Christopher Meloni’s turn as Dodgers manager Leo Durocher gives the film some life as all outspoken and colorful baseball skippers typically do, and there’s a charm to Nicole Beharie as Jackie’s wife Rachel that makes her scenes with Boseman pleasant if nothing else... but when it comes to the rest of the regular players on the team, which included All-Star Ralph Branca and fellow Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese, it’s a set of cookie-cutter personalities, with no one really differentiating themselves from anyone else.
42 tries to provide a rosy outlook on life in the 40s as it relates to race relations, and, as a result, it quickly becomes a film that is damn near impossible to root along with. How that could possibly have happened is beyond me? The story of the first black Major League Baseball player seems like a sure home run to me, but with poor story choices, no real dramatic structure whatsoever and plenty of other problems plaguing it, 42 is a poor showing at the plate in the name of Jackie Robinson. This is really bad strikeout.
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