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.