One of my daughters got bit by the baseball bug back when she was in grammar school. We took her to Fenway, signed her up for softball, showed her “Field of Dreams” and “Pride of the Yankees.” She read all the baseball biographies she could get her hands on, those picture-heavy Scholastic books about the Babe and the Splendid Splinter and the Say Hey Kid. And Jackie Robinson, of course — a great baseball story, but a good, tough American tale as well.
“42,” the ambitious new biopic about Robinson, is better written and produced than those children’s books, but it isn’t any deeper, and that’s a disappointment. How severe a disappointment will depend on whether you like your inspirational legends served with all the trimmings — swelling soundtrack music, men rounding third in slow-motion, little boys looking on in awe — or prefer your heroes life-size, the better to honestly depict their triumphs.
The film’s handsomely mounted and great to look at, and it gets the basics right, including the action on the field. (To me, anyway; the guys over in the sports section might differ.) Writer-director Brian Helgeland — he wrote the scripts for “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River” — approaches the story of the first man to break baseball’s color barrier with reverence for the legend and respect for the period. If you want a crowd-pleaser that confirms your belief in America’s steady, pre-ordained progression away from racism, this will do fine.
As Robinson, newcomer Chadwick Boseman is also fine, a physical ringer for the player and an actor capable of hitting the script’s slow floaters. His Jackie is as complex as “42” allows him to be: a man proud of himself and his abilities but forced to swallow that pride for the greater good (of his race, of baseball, of American society — take your pick). The film opens in 1945, as Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) announces to his stunned staff that a Negro ballplayer will be brought up through the farm system into the big leagues.
“Why me?” Robinson asks Rickey throughout “42,” and it’s a fair question the movie never really answers. Ford gives a juicy, two-dimensional hambone of a character performance — he’s an enjoyable cartoon — but he convinces you that Rickey is acting both out of greed (all those African-American ticket sales) and contrarian Methodist principles. Still, why Robinson? Why not Roy Campanella or Larry Doby? To press too far into such questions is to go against the heroic narrative, so the movie doesn’t.
After the legendary exchange between Robinson and Rickey, herein enshrined — “You want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” “No, I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back” — “42” sends the player to the Triple-A Montreal Royals before bringing him to Ebbets Field, home of the beloved Bums. Jackie’s accompanied by his wife, Rachel (a delightful Nicole Beharie), and black sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) — the new star’s appointed Boswell — but most of the film’s drama takes place on the field, in the stands, and in the locker room.
Helgeland understands that, when all is said and done, this is less the story of one African-American athlete than of the immense perceptual shift white America had to make to accommodate him. (That’s why “42” is nothing like “The Help,” a movie that turns a white Southern woman into a hero of the Civil Rights era.) Robinson is surrounded by concentric rings of embedded prejudice. In the Dodgers clubhouse, the debate is primarily between Brad Beyer’s snake-eyed Kirby Higby and Lucas Black’s supportive Pee Wee Reese, with Eddie Stanky (Jesse Luken), Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater, very funny), and Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) on various points of the graph.
Beyond that are the other teams of the National League, all hostile to Rickey’s experiment. In the film, baserunner Enos Slaughter spikes Robinson (did happen), and pitcher Fritz Ostermuller hits him in the head (didn’t). Late in “42,” the great gray-eyed character actor Alan Tudyk turns the Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman into a figure of absurdist villainy, hopping up and down on the baseline and screaming every vicious slur in the playbook.
And then there are the fans, a sea of reddened faces choking on what they see. In a heavyhanded but effective moment, “42” shows a little boy (Henry Friedman) in the stands with his dad (Holden Hansen); they’re sharing a classic Norman Rockwell moment that turns sour when the father calls Robinson the N-word and the son, after a pause, joins in.
That’s where the conflict is in this movie, not in a groundbreaking baseball player doing his best to keep his emotions in check. The bottom line is this: Any version of the Jackie Robinson story that renders the African-American characters generic while fleshing out the whites is just missing the point. “42” does give Robinson one scene where he gets to rage unseen in an Ebbets Field walkway. Then it brings on Rickey for a paternal shoulder-pat in silhouette.
The film rushes up to the 1947 World Series and stops short, since losing is not what the film’s about. Helgeland fills the edges with pleasurable bits (Christopher Meloni as a swaggering Leo Durocher; John C. McGinley just aces as sportscaster Red Barber, coming up with laconic poetry on the fly) but he fills the center with hollow Hollywood pageantry. Mark Isham’s score is a particular offender — canned-corn Americana — and it’s cranked up high so we’ll know what to feel at every conceivable moment.
In the end, “42” lets us hear from everybody but the man himself. Back in the 1990s, Spike Lee unsuccessfully tried to get a version of this tale to the screen with Denzel Washington in the lead; it might have ticked off a lot of people while getting closer to Robinson’s own experiences. As others have pointed out, a simple dip into the player’s 1972 memoirs, “I Never Had It Made,” reveals a prouder, pricklier, more clear-eyed, and complicated man than Helgeland allows.
But that’s not what pageantry’s for. “42” is a soothing epic of mainstream social progress — a parade with a saintly blur at its head. It’s a children’s movie, when the point about Robinson is that he came along at a time when baseball fans and white America were ready at last to eventually act like grown-ups.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.