If we are to accept that “42,” a Hollywood-financed Jackie Robinson biopic, was going to be manipulative no matter the talent involved—which is to say, dramatized to the hilt, with constant reminders (swooning musical score, over-the-top dialogue) that the sociopolitical stakes of each scene are higher than Cheech and Chong—then this Brian Helgeland-directed film is near perfect. Does it authentically impart upon the audience Robinson’s personal experience as the first African-American Major League Baseball player? Probably not, but the film does manage to respectfully, entertainingly showcase both his landmark contributions to the game, as a great player, and to American society, as the man who broke the color barrier.
Is there anything inherently inaccurate about a film that seeks to immortalize a deserving individual, rather than to explore their internal complexities? Even last year’s comparatively nuanced, historically exhaustive “Lincoln” avoided any critiques of the 16th President. I would argue that such “inspirational” narratives are a perfectly legitimate way for we humans, creatures who value storytelling (which doesn’t have to adhere to a realist style), to express what such individuals mean to us in a cultural sense. That is to say, while “42”’s black-and-white (pardon the pun) characterizations of Robinson’s legacy are broad, they are founded in the historical narrative that has been drawn of the player over the years, which is just as socially significant as the “unfiltered” version of events. The purpose of the film is less to enlighten—though, it may do so for future generations—than it is to celebrate, another noble undertaking.
Writer/director Helgeland and his cast certainly never pretend as though they’re building anything more than a bullet-points, popcorn-style portrayal of Robinson’s career — and within the context of such, their work is excellent across-the-board. Helgeland’s two-hour chronicle of Robinson’s journey from the Negro Leagues to the minors to the majors, enabled by Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), fuses the best of the melodrama and the sports movie. The tension is always kept high, as Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) confronts one obstacle after another, from an opposing team’s viciously racist coach (Phillies manager Ben Chapman is well-played by Alan Tudyk) to equally intolerant teammates. This exaggerated style could have easily caused “42” to come off as cheap schmaltz, but Helgeland’s brisk pacing and the cast’s commitment to honor the importance of their characters’ actions—Boseman plays a no-nonsense Robinson, while Ford presents Rickey as a man who saw that racial equality and success on the field were not mutually exclusive–always keep the film on course.
If there’s a problem with “42”’s glossy presentation, it’s that the monumental nature of Robinson’s struggle is minimized by being staged in a similar style as that of every other sports movie underdog (real or fictional). But Helgeland and company handle the details of the story with such reverence, it’s hard to imagine a viewer, even centuries from now, failing to comprehend Robinson’s import as a result. Perhaps it’s mildly ironic that a movie that depicts such a groundbreaking figure doesn’t break any ground itself, but let’s not overanalyze a work that isn’t meant to be. As a straightforward tribute to a legend, “42” is a home-run.