Review: '42' a dose of old-fashioned courage and drama

(Warner Bros.)

Published: Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 7:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 7:45 p.m.

It's a rare hero indeed who makes his mark through inaction rather than action.



Rated: PG-13
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni

This, “42” tells us, was baseball and accidental civil rights legend Jackie Robinson's most heroic quality. Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, it was his stubborn refusal to sink to the level of the race-baiters and bigots that gave strength to his cause and helped him prevail. Does “42” overly simplify Robinson's story in the pursuit of greater drama? Of course, as is to be expected. But does it deliver the goods in a compelling manner? It sure does.

After a slick but ultimately useless montage to set the scene (did you know we had racism in America in the 1940s?), the movie opens in the New York offices of one Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As played by Harrison Ford speaking through a mouth full of gravel, Rickey is a curmudgeon, but he also sees that baseball is a game that appeals to everyone, including blacks, so it's good business sense to get a black player on the team to bring in those crowds.

Rickey selects Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), known as a troublemaker, because he wants a player who has “the guts not to fight back.” It also helps that Robinson is quite the baseball player, and the Dodgers need all the help they can get to win the pennant. Robinson takes a spot with the Dodgers' minor league affiliate in Montreal despite his reservations and distaste for the spotlight, then sets about proving his worth on the field while enduring the slights, both spoken and unspoken, from his teammates, the fans and his opponents.

In the meantime, Rickey does his best to make life at least tolerable for Robinson by shielding him from some of the hate directed his way. Once Robinson proves himself and makes it to the majors, the abuse only gets worse, and he struggles to keep his cool even as a sea of hostility rages about him. And all the while, there's still a pennant to be won.

In both form and content, this is a thoroughly old-fashioned story, in the best possible sense of the term. From the sepia-tinged cinematography to the bombastic score, writer/director Brian Helgeland and his crew have created a movie that, paradoxically, is refreshing precisely because of how rooted it is in classical storytelling. Helgeland knows he has a great story on his hands, so he simply gets out of the way, lets the actors do their thing and keeps the proceeding on an even keel, balancing Robinson's on-field exploits with his off-the-field struggles.

Speaking of those on-field exploits, the baseball scenes in “42” possess a real kinetic energy. Robinson had power and was a great defender, but it was his speed on the base paths that made him a real threat; Helgeland wisely makes Robinson's base-stealing skills the focus of many of his biggest triumphs on the field. This will make longtime baseball fans cheer, as stealing is somewhat of a lost art (those same fans will likely weep when they see dearly departed Ebbets Field temporarily resurrected).

As the movie's closing titles tell us, the number 42 has been permanently retired from all of baseball, except for the one day a year when every player on every team wears it as a tribute to Robinson. While “42” may not tell us much we didn't already know about Robinson, it tells his story with enough conviction to make it plain why and how he earned that honor.

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