Every time Hollywood releases another civil rights sports movie, it calls to mind comedian Bill Burr’s funny bit about white guilt, because audiences have been inundated with so many of these films recently that they’ve begun to lose the potency of their message. Of course, if you are going to make another civil rights sports movie, the story of Jackie Robinson is pretty much the definitive version, so it’s surprising that only one other film (“The Jackie Robinson Story”) has been made on the subject, and that movie starred the famous baseball player as himself. It’s probably because no matter how inspiring Robinson’s tale may be, he’s not a particularly interesting figure apart from his contribution to history, and that’s something that director Brian Helgeland constantly wrestles with in “42.”
Unlike most biopics, the film only covers three years of Robinson’s life, beginning in 1945 when he was still playing in the Negro league after serving in World War II. Spring training has just begun and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) has decided to make the bold move to break the color line and bring the first black player into the National League. Initially assigned to the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal, Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) must overcome immense racism from both the fans and his teammates, much to the concern of his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) and black sports journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), who’s aware that there’s much more at stake than Jackie realizes. But instead of lashing out against his detractors like everyone is expecting, Robinson lets his talent do the talking on the baseball field, eventually earning a spot with the Dodgers and leading them to the pennant in his first year.
A conservative and slightly cheesy sports drama that feels like a product of its 1940s setting, “42” suffers from a remarkably dull protagonist who either didn’t have a very fascinating personal life (we don’t see much beyond his seemingly perfect marriage, and even then, Beharie isn’t given a whole lot to do) or whose estate prevented Helgeland from including anything that might have tarnished his legacy. Thankfully, the baseball scenes are much more enjoyable, due in part to supporting players like Christopher Meloni as Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and Alan Tudyk as Phillies manager Ben Chapman. In fact, the pivotal scene where Chapman heckles Robinson is one of the film’s best, as it perfectly portrays the level of bigotry that he was subjected to and his inner struggle to ignore the abuse. Tudyk is actually very amusing in the role, despite the fact that the unrelenting racist vitriol he launches at Robinson is appalling.
Boseman delivers some of his best work in the scene as well, and although it’s not quite a star-making turn, it is an impressive debut considering the paltry character development in the script. What Robinson lacks in personality, however, Harrison Ford more than makes up for with his standout performance as Branch Rickey. Though the grumbling GM is a bit cartoonish at times, I can’t remember the last time the actor has been this good, and Helgeland knows it too, turning to Ford whenever he needs to lighten the mood or deliver a rousing speech. It’s his involvement that just barely tips the scale in the favor of “42,” because while the movie is an enjoyable tribute to one of baseball’s biggest heroes, it’s not as memorable as the source material warrants.