‘42’ Provides Inspiration, Lacks Character Study
By Brandon HENSLEY
When Jackie Robinson reached base in his career, pitchers quickly learned they were in a world of trouble because he was out to steal every bag, including home plate.
Warner Bros. Studios’ new release “42” uses Robinson’s famed aggressiveness as a metaphor during its entire 128-minute duration, delivering the message loud and clear- you could never stop Robinson from coming, even if you tried, and we’re all the better for it.
The problem, though, is the message is too loud and too clear. Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) makes several allusions to Jesus Christ when either speaking about or directly to Robinson. When the time comes for Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese to put his arm around Robinson in a game at Cincinnati, he tells him, “Maybe one day we’ll all wear 42, so no one can tell us apart.”
Clearly, subtlety is not what writer/director Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”) was going for. Instead the heavy-handedness of the dialogue makes the film less like a biopic and more like a celebration of the vision Rickey had and the outcome of Robinson’s cross bearing for it.
Chadwick Boseman, in his first starring role, plays Robinson well enough. He’s capable in the field during the action, and he delivers his lines with enough apprehension and dry wit that he’s sometimes reminiscent of Denzel Washington, which gives the impression that Washington would have been a great choice for the role if this were the 1980s.
The story starts in 1945 with Robinson in the Negro Leagues and continues through the end of 1947, the year he became the first black man in major league baseball.
There are no surprises. During his journey, Robinson encounters off-putting questions from a relentless media, reluctance from several Dodgers teammates to accept him, and scorn from fans and opposing teams, including a drawn-out scene with racist Philadelphia manager Bob Chapman, played by Alan Tudyk. It is surreal if only for the fact Tudyk played the wacky Steve the Pirate in the comedy “Dodgeball.”
There are plenty of epithets thrown at Robinson and a powerful scene when he breaks down in a clubhouse tunnel, but that’s about as introspective as “42” gets. It’s not a character study the way Roger Maris was in HBO’s “61” when he chased Babe Ruth’s home run record (think about the scene when Maris’ hair comes out in patches due to the stress).
The baseball action itself is fantastic. The placement of the cameras and the sound of the ball zooming by Robinson’s head give extra impact to the viewer. Most of the action has Boseman running the bases. But when Robinson plays defense, his plight in the field is ignored until one late scene acknowledges that in fact, oh yeah, runners tried to intentionally hurt him with their cleats when reaching base. Disappointingly, “42” shines a light on how people thought of and treated Robinson, but glosses over how much he suffered because of that.
But maybe that’s not the point Helgeland is trying to make. Robinson’s star burned bright, then quickly faded – he died in 1972 at age 53.
“42” isn’t necessarily about Jackie Robinson, because Robinson didn’t play for himself, but for something bigger. That’s what needs to be accepted here, as it wouldn’t be right to compare this to “Ray” or “Walk the Line,” as those were specifically designed to do something different.
In the middle of the film, Robinson, whose father left him when he was young, is at a hospital looking through the glass at his newborn son.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “You’re going to know my name.”
Again, it’s not hard to figure out whom he’s really speaking to and what his words mean, but the message is nonetheless received, and should always be celebrated.
Editor’s note: Brandon Hensley is sports editor for the Crescenta Valley Weekly.