The reason it has taken Hollywood so long to put together a Jackie Robinson bio film has nothing to do with racism or anyone questioning Robinson's groundbreaking achievements, both on the field and in history, as major league baseball's first-ever black player. The problem is that Robinson led a pretty dull (at least cinematically) life off the field, at least as far as anyone is willing to say on record, including his widow and his fellow players. So how do you make a film about Robinson interesting? You can't just fill it full of moments on the field, although there are so many to choose from.
Truthfully, you have to take some of the movie version of Robinson's life away from him and give it to the people around him—the white members of the Brooklyn Dodgers ball club who had to get used to a new kind of attention at their games; the fans, who slowly began to realize that Robinson was going to succeed or fail on his own merits and not because of his race; and perhaps most importantly, Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (played in the new film 42 by Harrison Ford, who seems more awake and alive in this part than he has in quite some time), who made the decision in 1946 to bring Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) on board as much for money and publicity as any kind of statement about equality.
No pun intended, 42 covers the bases of Robinson's professional life, without digging too deep into his pre-baseball existence. We see him come up through the ranks of the Negro League, the minors, and eventually into a Dodgers uniform. We get a glimpse of the whirlwind romance that led to his marriage to Rachel (Nicole Beharie), and how she served as a stabilizing force in his life. But since Robinson was never at the center of any scandal in his personal or professional life, the only source of drama in his life came from fans, players, coaches and the times, all of which booed him on the field and hurled the worst names at him day after day.
In one of their first meetings, Rickey tells Robinson that he has to be strong enough not to fight back, to be the perfect gentleman all the time, and never let this overwhelming discouragement get him down or angry in public. One of the great appeals of Boseman as an actor is how reserved he plays Robinson. The hurt, frustration and anger are there in his performance, but you have to watch his eyes to see it. In the film's most important sequence, Robinson is verbally brutalized every time he gets up to bat by Phillies coach Ben Chapman (played with shocking venom by Alan Tudyk). After one particularly nasty barrage of insults, Robinson goes into the tunnel to the locker room and destroys his bat in a rare moment of rage, away from the public eye. I don't think anyone knows for sure if Robinson did this ever, but of course, he had to have moments where he wanted to.
42 does a slightly better than surface level job of showing the changing attitudes among Robinson's fellow players and coaches, with particularly strong performances by Chris Meloni as Leo Durocher, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese and Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca. As coaches in any sport often do, writer-director Brian Helgeland focuses on the fundamentals. Perhaps he believed that rather than invent motivating forces or false moments in Robinson's life, sticking to the facts and trusting that the power of the achievements and focus on the forces that Robinson had to overcome would combine to give a complete picture of the man. His theory is mostly right, and he delivers a serviceable biography that you'll wish was something more extraordinary, but maybe could never be.
Helgeland is a smart writer (GREEN ZONE, MYSTIC RIVER, MAN ON FIRE, CONSPIRACY THEORY) and a sometimes-great director (PAYBACK, A KNIGHT'S TALE), and maybe the better approach would have been to give more of a sense of the impact Robinson had on the times and how he served as an inspiration to black kids (and likely a few adults) around the country. There are a few asides cut into 42 showing people listening to games on the radio and cheering on, but that doesn't quite drive the message home the way it could. Buoyed by some really strong performances by Boseman, Ford and the supporting players, 42 succeeds without truly excelling. It's a great history lesson without giving us life lessons we can cling to and learn from. It's a closer call than you might think, but it still left me wanting to know more about what motivated Robinson and kept him from crumbling under such enormous pressure.