The new film chronicling the rise of Jackie Robinson,42, was released to positive reviews but mediocre box office results. Who’s got it right: the critics, or the public?
The film kicks off with a scene of Robinson lighting a fire under the Negro Leagues as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs. With Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey looking to put people in the seats with a pennant-contender taking the field, he breaks baseball’s color barrier and selects Robinson to be the vessel for social change, making sure he realizes the gravity of his circumstances before agreeing. The film is half-heartedly kind to baseball history, portraying events accurately, but only to the degree it chose to portray them, but the issue lies within the lack of courage of writer and director Brian Helgeland, who swapped power for cheers. The rampant racial tension and behavior of the times was the fuel behind Robinson’s heroic legacy, but it’s undermined by a confused storyline and a lack of certainty.
By breaking the color barrier in America’s biggest sport at the time, Robinson was the target for discrimination and death threats. He was hounded on a daily basis from city to city, but instead of letting this drive the film, Helgeland merely touches on it by dragging out a few relatively minor events. The scenes of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman taunting Robinson were not special in and of themselves, as they were truly one in a million, but Helgeland drew them out to compensate for the lack of focus on historical perspective.
Had Helgeland not copped out and taken a more Disney approach, where big blasts and slick swipes of second are the clichéd focus, Robinson’s mental state and struggle to deal with continual hounding, fear, and severe racism while staying true to himself and his family could have taken center stage and made a more personal and powerful take on his early career.
Aside from this, Helgeland seemed unclear how to best tackle the material. The film runs for just over two hours, without any concise direction or focus ever established, and, because of this, there’s no point ever being made. The movie leaps from Robinson’s minor league debut to his call to the majors without any attention to detail. In this time, Robinson got married and had a child, neither of which gets their due in the film; it’s almost as if they never even existed. Rachel Robinson was Jackie’s rock through his trials and having a child who’s been constantly threatened by bigots in every city and town in America brings stress; by watching 42, you’d think Robinson’s family life was a total non-factor.
The movie tries to cover a multitude of things, but it always swings to the next vine before making a point. It breezes through the discomfort of Robinson’s teammates and the resulting tension, almost ignores his family and basically shuns his dealings with prejudiced white players and fans, thus creating an emotionally distant and historically impotent story.
The saving grace of the film, however, is the charisma of stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Rickey, not to mention the occasional chuckle. Boseman isn’t necessarily given much in terms of character development, but he does an astounding job of making number 42 as rich in emotion and complex in action as possible. Without his vigor, the film would fall flat for the most part. In fact, the acting across the board is really what spares 42. There’s a spark in every performer that makes the story feel involving and authentic. Helgeland’s script, although humorous in the right places and jarring in others, has one fatal flaw.
There are simply too many moments where everything is spelled out for you. In one scene, a young white boy is sitting in the stands with his racist father, and when Robinson steps out onto the grass of Crosley Field in Cincinnati, the latter, along with innumerable white fans, berates him. The son, with an overdone whimper on his face, looks around horrified, a close-up revisited several times before the boy finally shouts the n-word from the stands. In a moment meant to represent the power of peer pressure and the way it affects minorities, Helgeland chose to pull a Spielberg and pound the point home with a sledgehammer.
In spite of its obvious flaws, 42 does serve a valiant purpose, and does an enjoyable, albeit safe, job of meeting the standards that purpose sets. The difficult road taken by America’s first black ballplayer is far more varied in emotion and heart-wrenching than what the film may have you believe, but it has a certain element of enjoyment and power to level off its ignorance.
Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars