I don’t know about you, but I’m feelin’ 42
The story of Jackie Robinson is inspirational and ‘Murica! enough that the film 42 could have been a Power Point presentation of black and white historical photos accompanied by a drawling narrator and it would have had audiences bawling nonetheless. Unfortunately, 42 depended on the Robinson’s inspirational tale and virtually nothing else to keep audiences cheering. Though the movie is admittedly well acted, Robinson’s story is the only remarkable thing about the film itself.
The biopic covers the first two seasons of Robinson’s career as a professional ball player, first playing for the Montreal Royals then for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson (portrayed by Chadwick Boseman) was the first ever African-American player to be professionally signed. The film focuses on his achievements on the field, and his personal struggle to tolerate the adversity of being the only non-white ball player in a close-minded nation.
The film doesn’t take Robinson’s story lightly. Team executive Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) tells him that joining the team will be about more than just playing baseball. He will not have to be courageous enough to stand up for himself, but to not stand up for himself. Boseman, playing Robinson in his first major role, captures the bravery and heart of one of the world’s greatest baseball legends with quiet determination and humility, and a certain self-contained dynamism that many true heroes have.
The film tackles the era of fracturing racial barriers with passion hard to come by in film these days, but even that was dwarfed in comparison by director Brian Helgeland’s respect for Robinson. Every scene of the film provided another challenge for the hero to overcome; every portrayal of figures associated with him is either glassy-eyed admirers or venomous obstacles he must overcome. There’s no denying the enormity of challenges Robinson faced (we see more than enough from Alan Tudyk’s portrayal of Phillies manager Ben Chapman, whose vocabulary would have made Quentin Tarantino proud). However, 42 came pretty dang close to exaggerating them. The film would have benefitted from allowing audiences to make their own assumptions rather than making sure they leave the theater with a shared opinion.
42 never reaches the level of grandeur it strives for, and never realizes it didn’t necessarily have to in order to deliver the same amount of satisfaction from the story. It certainly inspires, but we have to consider the carefully manufactured, synthetic ‘emotion’ the inspiration comes from. The film inadvertently becomes a hollow victory. Baseball shouldn’t feel like that.