Besides breaking the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947 and the baseball sport telecast color barrier in 1965, Jackie Robinson co-founded Freedom National Bank in Harlem, served as vice president of personnel for Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee, campaigned for twoconservative political figures (Richard Nixon in 1960 and Nelson Rockefeller in 1964) and still found enough time in the day to fight for Civil Rights until his death in 1972. Doesn’t that come across as a life that is worth recounting on screen, one of variance and (admitted) ambiguity? Brian Helgeland’s “42” has a much narrower focus, choosing instead to chronicle Robinson’s early baseball career in typical biopic fashion; “42” is a classical feel-good sports movie/biopic whose sentimentality is cemented by notable performances and comprehensive period detail that is as effective as a conveyer belt cinematic life story can be, for better and for worse.
“42” charts Jackie Robinson’s (Chadwick Boseman) transition from Negro League obscurity to Brooklyn Dodgers fame, his relationship with Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), and the vast racial barricades that Robinson faced from aggressive managers and disapproving fans and fellow players who don’t welcome the mixing of races in America’s national pastime. We also get a glimpse of the early days of Jackie’s marriage to Rachel Isum (Nicole Beharie), including Isum’s adjustment to a not so welcoming world.
The fact that Helgeland’s film is extremely traditional in scope and execution is its greatest strength and weakness; this very time-honored portrayal of a fraction of Robinson’s life will rouse and inspire the crowd in all of the ways it needs to, no more and no less. From Rickey’s opening monologue about moxie and grit in the game of baseball in his quest to “find Jackie Robinson” to Robinson’s last lap around the diamond after his home run against the Pittsburgh Pirates, “42” paints the life of a true American icon in the broadest, most recognizable strokes possible, yet another celebrity fed to the sports movie machine.
Not to say that there aren’t glimmers of inspired decisions in here somewhere. Boseman’s Robinson is scrappy and hard-nosed, to be sure, but Boseman portrays him as far more than just another rebel with a cause; he is able to properly convey that Robinson was a man under constant social pressures, desperate for acceptance yet not willing to give in to the bigoted powers that be. In such a linear and well-known story, nuance like this carries “42” along.
Even with Boseman’s performance and Helgeland’s admittedly briskly paced screenplay, “42” come across as a very boilerplate and, let’s admit, toothless film. Biopics by nature come across as a very observational genre, one that doesn’t usually takes sides in regards to its subject and just presents the facts in a way that is digestible, yet everyone knows that Robinson is the man who integrated baseball; this is a road well traveled cinematically (“Soul of The Game”, “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson”), already paved with this information. Helgeland’s film could’ve benefited from a more all-encompassing approach to Robinson’s story, a la Taylor Hackford’s 2004 biopic “Ray”, a film that wasn’t afraid to sketch musician and Civil Rights activist Ray Charles in a more ambiguous and humanizing light while still maintaining a level of earnest authenticity to its time.
The quintessential Jackie Robinson movie, one that addresses the man, the myth, and the legend in equal measure, still has yet to be made. Brian Helgeland’s “42” is a well-meaning, yet utterly toothless introduction to the life and accomplishments of a multi-faceted American icon.