by M. Faust
Named for the jersey its protagonist wore for ten seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers, a number that has since been universally retired from baseball, 42 takes on the daunting task of telling the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play in major league baseball. You youngsters in the audience may need to be told that at the time baseball was America’s game, making Robinson a figure of instant national importance—and, in many quarters, deep hatred.
Confined to the two years from the time he was hired by the Dodgers organization to the end of his first year in the majors, 42 encapsulates its dramatic structure in an exchange between Robinson and team general manager Branch Rickey. After Rickey gives him a sample of the kind of racist attacks he will be expected to ignore, Robinson asks, “Do you want a player who hasn’t got enough guts to fight back?” To which Rickey responds, “No, I want a player who’s got enough guts not to fight back.” Robinson was hired not because he was the greatest player in the Negro Leagures—he wasn’t—but because Rickey deemed him most likely to succeed as the first of a wave of black players he intended to hire in the coming years.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland hasn’t sidestepped the trap of the story’s inherent nobility: at times, it’s simply corny and pretty. But more often that not it succeeds, especially for family viewing (the lesson that tolerance is an ongoing battle certainly has its place today). As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is almost distractingly attractive but up to the considerable task of playing almost unending internalized frustration and rage. Harrison Ford works too hard as Rickey, but it’s a one-note character and the hamminess is more endearing than annoying.
Helgeland’s attention to period detail makes the film look like a Clint Eastwood project minus the grit, but it’s filled with entertaining set pieces, like Robinson getting even with a pitcher who won’t give him a ball he can hit by taking a walk and stealing his way to home base. And he takes cares with the supporting roles, many of them familiar names to baseball fans: Leo Durocher, Wendell Smith, Ralph Branca. (I enjoyed seeing Max Gail, Det. Wojciehowicz from Barney Miller, as reluctant team manager Burt Shotton.)
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