A Number Deservedly Retired

It’s been nearly 66 years to the day that Jackie Robinson first stepped onto the field as a Brooklyn Dodger, breaking major league baseball’s color barrier, so it’s fair to say that 42 is a movie that is long overdue.  It is only the second big screen movie about the life of the only man whose jersey number is retired across all of major league baseball and the first since 1950, when the hall-of-famer was still young enough to star as himself.  The film is a relatively safe biography, but a loving salute to a man who faced more adversity in one year than most of us will face in our lifetimes.

The movie opens in 1945 with Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey announcing that he planned to sign a black man to play for his team, thus braking major league baseball’s color barrier.  Knowing that he needs someone who could be a star while not giving in to the inevitable taunts, Rickey finds Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a shortstop playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League.  He initially signs Robinson to play for the big club’s minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals.  After a year with that club, Rickey decides the time has come and signs Jackie to a big league contract.  On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson in 42The majority of the movie focuses on that first year with the Dodgers and emphasizes the challenges he faced as the lone black man in white baseball.  Fans and opposing players would shout racial slurs and even members of his own team signed a petition saying that they would not play on the same field with him.  The movie consolidates much of the racial abuse suffered by Robinson into one scene against the Phillies and their manager Ben Chapman.  Chapman stood outside the dugout every time Robinson came to the plate and shouted racial slurs and obscenities.  Although it would almost break Robinson’s spirit, Chapman’s constant abuse would eventually have the opposite effect that he had hoped, rallying Jackie’s teammates around him.  The Dodgers would go on to win the National League pennant that year, thanks in large part to Jackie’s rookie-of-the-year season.

Although it often feels closer to a television movie-of-the-week than a big budget Hollywood movie, 42 is an entertaining story made by people who obviously have a great respect for the man and his accomplishments.  Newcomer Chadwick Boseman does an excellent job as Robinson and impressively goes head-to-head with veteran Harrison Ford in a few good scenes.  Ford falls into caricature on occasion, but for the most part is very good as Rickey.  These are the kinds of character parts that it would be nice to see Ford in more as he gets older.  His scenes with Boseman are the heart of the movie and the best scenes in the film.

Writer/director Brian Helgeland does a good job of taking a few true-to-life events of Robinson’s rookie season and using them to condense the challenges of the entire season down to a reasonable number of key moments.  The scene with Ben Chapman and the Phillies being one and a scene in which the Dodgers’ star shortstop Pee Wee Reese showed his support at a game in Cincinnati by putting his arm around Robinson before the game in response to a death threat he received before hand is another.

For a baseball movie, 42 doesn’t spend that much time focusing on the action of the game, which is probably for the best because sequences that do take place on the field often seem fake and stagey.  One glaring example comes when a player supposedly hits a line drive into right field, but the right fielder fields it as if it was thrown to him by the center fielder.  It would also be nice if the filmmakers would have hired people who could actually throw and hit, because nothing takes the audience out of the period drama quite like an obviously-digitized baseball.

The musical score tries a little too hard to explain to the audience that this is an important story, while some of the interactions between Jackie and other players can feel clichéd at times, but for the most part 42 succeeds as drama.  It also does an excellent job of introducing modern audiences to a man whose accomplishments may not be fully appreciated in an era when athletes come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

42 is rated PG-13 for “thematic elements including language.”  Racial slurs are used throughout and I was somewhat surprised that this film was not rated R for one particularly harsh scene.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of 42.