42 is the story of Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first black major league player. It’s what the critics used to call a “movie-movie,” and it’s touching, beautifully photographed, covered in a layer of honey both visually and narratively, and not quite believable. But what gives it life is a combination of the truth of the basic story and the movie’s one semi-brave move.
Chadwick Boseman as Jackie is a find. He fits the Jackie of the film without breaking out into something bigger, which fits with the film’s aim. The film is more about the historical moment than the man, and the role of Jackie (meant both ways) is a contained one. Boseman has the requisite good looks and flashy smile of a movie star, but he also slides easily into the role of loving husband, skilled player, and dutiful servant to the vision of Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey, the man who had the vision of integrating the sport and who recruited the right man—Robinson—to make it happen.
Ford breaks away from his usual hero/curmudgeon role and uses his personal strength and anger as supports for creating a Bible-quoting, feisty man on a mission fueled by his faith in God and his own principles. It’s quite a refreshing thing to behold, and a reminder that the man can act, not just snap a whip or a line. It’s actually something of a risk, as the character is larger than life, and Ford sustains a near over-the-top interpretation throughout. But it works, and his character contains shadings and colorings we’ve rarely seen from this actor.
The script and direction are solid, if not a bit old-fashioned. The little side scenes with children or those with people responding/reacting to the challenges of the historical moment are either lame or quite dreadful, and makes the film look like the A unit directed the scenes with the stars, and a afternoon TV special hack did the minor scenes. They stop the film cold with their lack of believability and their awkwardness.
The film’s great moment is its most awkward. Though I’ve read that the historical scene portrayed was in actuality more savage and profane, 42 depicts the famous moment of the Ben Chapman racist heckling of Robinson during a game. The “n” word gets said again and again and again, and we as the audience find the heckling getting under our skin, as well as offending the mind and sensibilities. It’s the one time the film ventures into something that might take the viewer out of his/her comfort zone, and the one that perhaps most respects both the man and the moment by making us feel Robinson’s frustrations. For a moment, we get a small taste of the racial baiting and hatred that too many experienced then (and now).
The scene where Robinson releases his frustration and Rickey comforts him is a beautiful moment. We see the explosion of anger, the emotional release that had to occur as a result of keeping all that rightful anger inside. But as is consistent with the film, we don’t get too close to Robinson, and we more watch the moment than experience it. But it ends with a manly half-hug from Rickey that is perfectly timed, expressive of concern and love, and yet of its time and place in its tender awkwardness. It’s both astringent and deeply emotional.
As an entertainment, it’s the kind of sugarcoated grown-up film they hardly make anymore. It’s not dangerous, or challenging, or really disquieting. A better 42 might have been edgier, more full of frustration and angst. But as a film, it’s aimed at men and women with a brain and a heart. As a record, it’s a bit too warm and fuzzy, but (pardon me) hits all the bases on its way home.