“42” Movie Review

     I’m surprised writer/director Brian Helgeland’s “42” doesn’t pack a little more punch on the story and dialogue side of things since his writing credits include, among others, “L.A. Confidential”, “Man on Fire”, and “Mystic River.”  Each of those films were helmed by more accomplished directors, but clearly had a strong foundation thanks to superb writing.  Armed with the true story of Jackie Robinson, the first ever black player in Major League Baseball, Helgeland  instead has created a safe, uncontroversial look into Robinson’s first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  “42” plays more like an after school special than a true epic feature film.  Many of the scenes are bland and have a no frills look to them, as if the intention was to make a cheap throwback when so much more could’ve been done.  There is; however, some entertainment value and the story itself is compelling.  I just expected more from a story about such an important figure in sports history.

     In the early scenes of the film, we meet Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the General Manager and chief personnel decision maker for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  Just like any executive, Rickey is looking for ways to help the team win and of course make more money.  It is during this meeting depicted in the film he tells his staff of his intention to sign the first black baseball player in an all white league.  Rickey is determined, even though his advisors are firmly against it, to get the Dodgers to the World Series at all costs, even if it means dealing with the consequences of a still divided America.  Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is recruited from the Negro League and is given a try out with the Dodgers minor league affiliate in Montreal.  As you would expect, Robinson isn’t given a warm welcome.

     The majority of the film is devoted to Robinson’s patience, as he is consistently subjected to harsh racism from teammates, opposing players, and fans.  There really is never time to appreciate Robinson’s skills as a player during the film’s running time because each scene is devoted to various cliched sequences where characters in the film begin racist, but eventually come around.  One example of this is a scene where a random father and young son are watching the game.  The father is setting a bad example, yelling out racial slurs at Robinson with the rest of the crowd and when the son sees this, he joins in screaming the N-word as well.  The child also inquires as to how many runs his dad thinks their favorite player, Pee Wee Reese, will score that day.  Soon after, Pee Wee Reese walks up to Robinson at first base and puts his arm around him for the entire stadium to see.  Helgeland zooms his camera back on the child who is  seeing this and he realizes if his favorite player accepts Robinson, than perhaps he should too.  “42” is loaded with scenes just like this, where various people come to similar realizations.

     Because so much is devoted to the topic of overcoming race, “42” is more of a drama about that topic than a sports movie.  As I mentioned earlier, Robinson’s accomplishments as a player are really not covered and the time frame being just his first year in MLB wouldn’t allow for it anyway.  The acting in the film leaves a bit to be desired due to a few of the performances being a little over the top.  The scene in which Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) unleashes a tirade of disturbing racial slurs at Robinson each time he is up to bat plays a little too long and well after it gets the point across.  It makes me wonder how much was ad libbed versus what was actually in the script.  Also, I don’t know why, but I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that each time Harrison Ford spoke, he sounded as though he was doing a Richard Nixon imitation.  The other performances are fine, but bring nothing to the overall quality of the film.  As Robinson, Boseman shows by far the most raw emotion, but even he at times looked to playing it safe.  I believe in the hands of a more well rounded filmmaker, “42” could’ve been the grand event I expected it to be.  Perhaps a treatment similar to what Spielberg gave “Lincoln” last year would’ve been more fitting.  Fortunately, this film only covered one year of Jackie Robinson’s life, which is just the proverbial tip of the ice berg.  There is much more that can be told. GRADE: C