Destiny swings a big stick in Brian Helgeland‘s “42.” It underlines every pivotal moment of Jackie Robinson’s career captured in the two hour film, often working as baggage keeping the film earthbound, at times making it unnecessarily weighty. It’s also probably the major reason why a number of mainstream critics will wag a finger at this unapologetic, old-fashioned hero yarn seemingly stitched from the similarly modest DNA of 1950’s “The Jackie Robinson Story.” What seems like a high fidelity to history is actually an acknowledgement and deep respect, the kind most modern filmmakers and viewers would likely find alien.
The film begins with the legend of Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the idiosyncratic owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers eager not to make history but to acknowledge that the only color significant to him is “green.” Winning will bring the fans out, and the roster move that will put the Dodgers over the top is the acquisition of Negro League barnstormer Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league history. In an audacious introduction, Robinson (newcomer Chadwick Boseman) is seen under the dim lights of a night game, promising a headstrong pitcher that he’s going to steal home right in front of him. Rickey’s words are lightning; Robinson’s on-field athleticism is all the thunder you’d need.
This pugnaciousness serves him well when he meets Rickey and promises him complete devotion to the team. The early scenes are particularly clunky between the two, as if there’s an implicit awareness that They Are Breaking The Color Barrier and Their Lives Will Never Be The Same. Boseman, a fascinating masculine presence, is strong without being insolent, brave without being obnoxious, traits that Robinson himself displayed playing the lead in “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Ford comes off less confidently, seeming to gesture and flail, wearing artificial gray eyebrows that look like overfed mice, hoping his bluster would overcompensate for a failure to create a character with a lived-in personality.
Helgeland is smart enough to know this story has been told before, so “42” earns distinction through what seems like meticulous research. There’s a hefty amount of screentime dedicated to Robinson’s teammates promising a mutiny, a laborious petition-driven process that involves several Dodgers voting to not play alongside Robinson himself. Rickey uses coded terms when he tells a minor league manager that he’s aware of his “cultural upbringing” after overhearing him slur “nigger” towards the player, a chiding that masks condescension with a fake tolerance towards ignorance.
Similarly, Alan Tudyk shows up to break the record for most uses of “nigger” per minute from any actor in film history (someone get this guy in a Tarantino movie). As blowhard Phillies manager Ben Chapman, Tudyk interrupts one game to blast Robinson with a string of n-bombs, as well as old favorites like “porch monkey” and “spade,” an ugly, powerful scene that, given the slack pacing of the picture and the considerable length, would have been kept on the cutting room floor by a more gunshy major studio. As Robinson finds it in himself to not engage Chapman in a war of words (or worse), the insults continue raining down on him, an endless fuselage that goes beyond upsetting into just plain disturbing.
It’s here where Helgeland shows his truest interests and instincts. Rickey correctly surmises that Robinson’s strength in letting this cascade off his back plays as stoicism to the media, and sure enough, it taints Chapman’s professional reputation, revealing that a portion of this social revolution spearheaded by Robinson was due to the actions of a few select reporters (an idea given short shrift here, though certainly enough to carry its own film). But later, in a photo opportunity, Chapman tones down the aggression without fully embracing Robinson, sagely noting like a member of the Boy’s Club the tradition of delivering similar slander towards the Jewish Hank Greenberg and the Italian Joe DiMaggio. With this moment, as well as Major League Baseball’s last minute decision to suspend manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) for adultery given pressure from the Catholic Youth Organization, “42” emphasizes that, for better or worse, the sport considered America’s Pastime has a long, embedded history of appealing towards an exclusionary Good Ole Boy appeal. As Rickey notes when he paints a portrait of the flood of incoming black players, it’s not as simple as people wanting to “play ball,” expressing uncertainty that it ever was, suggesting early and mid-twentieth century institutions projecting an insincere image of American culture.
That moment comes in an intriguing scene where shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) receives a death threat and takes it to Rickey’s office. Reese is one of Robinson’s most vocal supporters in the film, but noticeably shaken by a nasty piece of hate mail. Rickey responds by pulling open a drawer, tossing three separate folders comprised of threats received by Robinson over the course of the year. “42” casts a wide net in humanizing the risks of those who enabled Robinson’s rise to major league production, but takes great pains to avoid turning this into yet another studio film where the white man battles a gauntlet of adversity to allow for a Civil Rights victory.
“42” is excessively retro, neglecting the urge to pepper scenes with comic relief or oppressing, flashy conflict. But it’s the sort of approach that keeps these characters from being “rebels” with phony redemptive character arcs, like stern young black reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), hired to work the Robinson beat and provide media coaching. The cumulative effect of this approach, however, places a surprising emphasis on the chemistry between Boseman and Nicole Beharie as his wife Rachel. Like Boseman, Beharie is a carryover from “The Express” (these types of films seem to cast from an awfully small pool) and the two of them have undeniable chemistry, Beharie’s startlingly beautiful smile bursting through the screen like a beacon. As much history is being created on the field, it can’t compare to the magic created between these two performers. [B+]