Genre: Biography, Drama, Sport
Play time: 2h 8min
Director: Brian Helgeland
Screenwriters: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, T.R. Knight, Harrison Ford
What can you do with a Jackie Robinson biopic? Not much, as it turns out. Robinson falls into a rarified category of historical figures concerning whom virtually no artistic license is permissible. He is, come to think of it, virtually in a class by himself. Even someone as beloved and canonized as (say) Abraham Lincoln is fair game for speculation and exploration, within reason. But add the slightest less-than-worshipful nuance to the accepted story of Robinson’s courage, grace, and talent, and you’ll be run out of town on a rail. He’s Jackie Robinson. What can you do?
If you’re ambitious but stolidly mainstream writer-director Brian Helgeland, you can make something like 42, which I’m half-convinced is as good a biopic of the trailblazing baseball player as it’s possible to make in Hollywood in 2013. It is completely devoid of anything you didn’t already know or couldn’t have guessed about Robinson, telling the story of his controversial ascent into the Major Leagues with the greatest of care to not so much as suggest anything that diverges in any way from the party line about his life, his motivations, or his character. It hits all the well-known highlights – the threatened boycott by the players, the embrace with Pee Wee Reese, the abuse from the Phillies – with impeccably calculated bombast.
So focused is Helgeland on embalming the Jackie Robinson legend as flawlessly as possible that virtually everything in the film drives toward those big moments. The Reese character, for example, exists solely to give us the aforementioned on-the-field hug, and every second he’s on screen is set-up for that payoff: he either has his arm around someone’s shoulders in a klutzy bit of foreshadowing, or he’s dutifully laying the groundwork for the speech he ends up giving Robinson on the big day. Everyone in the supporting cast exists to make some point or another. A few people are irredeemable, but most come around, each one getting his own moment to showcase his nobility.
Sometimes the movie’s single-mindedness gives it a sort of hard-nosed integrity. Alan Tudyk shows up as racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman, and in a bid to emphasize Robinson’s ordeal, the film lets him unload a long, merciless barrage of bigoted abuse that becomes genuinely painful to watch. It’s the one scene in the film that feels raw and human, emotional in a way that transcends the usual big speeches, making real the theme that Robinson’s heroism lies in his courage to simply absorb everything thrown at him with quiet dignity.
And for all that its quiet-this-is-a-museum approach can be suffocating, 42 is also engaging in a cheesy, old-timey way. Harrison Ford gives his canniest performance in years as heroic Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who masterminds Robinson’s rise: abandoning all pretense to naturalism, he seems utterly delighted to be playing a myth rather than a character, growling lines like “Robinson! Find him! Bring him here!” with theatrical abandon. As the man himself, 30 year-old Chadwick Boseman takes the opposite approach, shrewdly painting Robinson as an ordinary guy who volunteers to put the weight of the world on his shoulders. And Helgeland keeps things moving at all costs, with a snappy polish that keeps the movie from feeling turgid even when it’s most firmly in greatest-hits mode. 42 won’t teach you a thing, but for a film that couldn’t have been very good, it’s not bad.
— Eugene Novikov