In this era of Superbowl Mania and the media storm caused by the public declaration of sexual orientation by an NBA pro basketball player, it’s hard to fully appreciate that baseball was this country’s “national pastime” in the very recent past. From its sandlot beginnings in the 19th century through the glory days of Ruth, DiMaggio & Williams, Americans of all ages were drawn to the sport, especially in the country’s principal Eastern cities - - and it was always played exclusively by white men.
Oscar-winning writer Brian Helegland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, Man on Fire) wrote and also directed this examination of how the sport broke its self-imposed color line in dramatic fashion during 1947, when a sharecropper’s son by the name of Jack Roosevelt Robinson made his dazzling debut with The Brooklyn Dodgers.
Chadwick Boseman (much seen in various T.V. series) brings the requisite fresh-scrubbed image to Jackie Robinson’s stunning entry into the Dodger’s farm-club system, presided over by Dodger President Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford). Manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) had to initially force Robinson’s own teammates to play with him and the abuse he was forced to endure from opposing players and fans alike makes 42an instant history lesson in America’s sad saga of racial bigotry. Audiences under the age of 50 can be forgiven for failing to note that when Robinson entered the major leagues, segregation was still the law of the land and the civil rights movement lay more than a decade in the future. How times have changed - - and how pathetically asinine the levels of racial prejudice we simply accepted at the time…</p>
Harrison Ford’s gruff manner and quiet dignity provides Rickey with the plausibility he surely needed to face the intense pressure which resulted from signing Robinson and Meloni’s sybaritic Durocher conveys just the right degree of pugnaciousness in battling Robinson’s bone-headed teammates, who ignored the great contributions this gifted athlete could make to the team’s success.
Boseman captures Robinson’s easy athleticism, but he’s hampered by Helgeland’s dialogue, which too often tilts toward the easy bromides and facile sentimentality of a Hallmark card. The script captures the ugliness of the racial epithets Robinson was forced to endure, but it rarely gives the audience an insight into the inner strength of a man who was nearly court-martialed by the army for having the temerity to object when a racist officer charged him with insubordination for refusing to sit at the back of an Army bus. This movie is so intent on presenting Robinson as a saintly figure it also misses the opportunity to show how physically grueling baseball is and how mercilessly it punishes even a brilliant player’s smallest imperfection on the playing field. Had 42 worked harder at portraying a proud man who worked hard at his craft, it might have been a great film instead of merely a good one.
The Verdict? A handsomely filmed recreation of post WW II America, racial ugliness and all…but too reverential about its subject.
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