The Jackie Robinson story has been told on film before…in The Jackie Robinson Story, starring Jackie Robinson. However, it’s such an important slice of American history with deep emotional resonance and baseball movie box office potential that I suppose it was inevitable that someone in Hollywood would eventually dive back into that well. Thankfully that someone ended up being writer/director Brian Helgeland. He’s a writer and filmmaker that can be very good (like when he co-wrote LA Confidential and directed Payback) or very bad (like when he co-wrote The Postman and directed The Order), but fortunately 42 falls more into the former category. When Helgeland is at his best, he’s reviving old fashioned movie genres and barely updating them. He’s clearly a director enamored by classic Hollywood who is desperate to bring those movie experiences back and 42 is such a pitch-perfect revival of an 50s melodrama that it may as well have been shot in Technicolor. Some may scoff at the film’s total lack of irony and unapologetic sentimentality, but there’s something so inherently romantic about this story and sport that anything else would feel inappropriate. They don’t make movies like this anymore and haven’t for decades. Yet, 42 suggests that it might not be a terrible idea to dust off those old naïve Hollywood filmmaking techniques every now and then if the material suits that style.
If you haven’t heard the Jackie Robinson story before, here’s a brief recap. In the 1940s baseball was the American pastime, but like almost all of America at the time was sadly racially segregated. The black ball players had their own league with some legendary players of their own, but were not permitted to try their talents against white players. That is until Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decided to take a risk and sign Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) to break the color barrier. Rickey knew the decision would be met with intense resistance and hand picked Robinson to be the trailblazer not because he was the most talented player available, but because he had the strength of will and personality necessary to play through intense scrutiny and racism. During the first season he played, Robinson was relentlessly booed by fans and players (particularly opposing manager Ben Chapman played by the capable Alan Tudyk who spits out enough hate speech to qualify for a role in Django Unchained). However, he never fought back and was so damn good that he won the Rookie of the Year and the hearts of all but the most racist of fans by the end of the season. The doors didn’t exactly swing wide open for black ball players after Robinson’s legendary 1947 season, but those players slowly slipped in for years after that, many of whom would become some of the greatest players to ever pick up the bat. Of course, no matter how much more talented the players that followed were, Robinson remains a legend for leading the way and his number 42 is only one retired by all of baseball.
When you take that story out of history and plop it into a feature film, the genuinely moving emotions start to feel a bit cheesy. The movie falls into a number of sports biopic clichés that are unavoidable and Helgeland is wise enough to embrace that fact rather than try to hide it. His script is filled with unnaturally grand line of dialogue like, “I need someone with the guts not to fight back” and huge dramatic moments backed by a swelling score that tells the audience exactly how to feel. Corny? Sure, but the actual story is so sweet and significant that it almost feels appropriate. Helgeland clearly did his research and includes every important moment and character from Robinson’s story, with all the material given due respect. Sure the odd facts are combined and story elements are exaggerated for the sake of drama, but nothing too egregious (the only really distracting decision for baseball fans was Helgeland reliance on the common cinematic iconography of the home run to define Robinson biggest moments, despite the fact that he only knocked 12 balls out of the park in 1947, which is quite a ways off of Barry Bonds steroid-enhanced single season record of 73).
The entire cast accept and embrace the tone to provide equally old fashion performances filled with charm. Chadwick Boseman embodies an infallible human spirit as Jackie while still feeling like a human being, Alan Tudyk plays his cartoon racist with a necessary shred of humanity, and John C. McGinley steals scenes with an eerily accurate vocal impression of iconic Brooklyn Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber. The only actor who goes a step too far in his old fashion ham and cheese acting is Harrison Ford who chews up almost as many scenes as he does cigars. Ford has been past his prime for a while, but his growling manager reaches Razzie levels of overacting that could have easily killed the movie were it not for the fact that everything else is so stylized that he almost fits in.
Make no mistake, 42 is a big ol’ sports weepy dripping with enough melodrama to fill a thousand soaps. However, baseball is such an old fashioned sport and this story in follows such a traditional heroic structure that it works. The movie will appear laughable to anyone who enters the theater with a shred of cynicism or expects the level of meticulous anal-retentive researched realism that John Sayles brought to Eight Men Out. This isn’t that kind of flick. Helgeland’s tone is more in line with the almost magical realist mythmaking of Barry Levinson’s The Natural, only his narrative is real and also served as an important public step towards racial equality. If you enjoy teary-eyed cheese with your sports drama, 42 is a film designed to make a grown man cry without a shred of shame. It’ll never win Oscars or capture the hearts of as many viewers as Jackie Robinson did himself, but Helgeland’s movie honors the man, the legend, and the sport with grace. That’s really all you could ask for.