When one is making a biopic, it is very tempting to do one of two things. They can either elevate the subject to where he/she is almost divine (example, Gandhi) or they can uncover the 'real' figure behind the subject to where he/she is almost insane (example, W.). 42, the story of Jackie Robinson, leans closer to the former than to the latter. However, given that Robinson A.) broke the color barrier in baseball, being a pioneer in African-American advancement, and B.) was never involved in any scandal public or private, it is hard to portray him in anything close to a negative light. 42 therefore doesn't dig deep into his private life. Instead, we are given an inspirational story of a most inspirational man.
Dodger owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) senses there's money to be made by integrating baseball at a time when Major League Baseball was a whites-only affair and black players were relegated to the Negro League. He's looking for a black player: one with talent, who hates discrimination, but who can also keep his cool under intense pressure off and on the field. All those qualities are in Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). Robinson is both thrilled and trepidatious about entering into the no-(black)-man's land of white baseball, but Rickey has confidence it will pay off.
With his new wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) by his side, Robinson first goes to the Dodger's affiliated minor league team of the Montreal Royals, where he faces some discrimination and hostility. However, that was just the opening act for what comes when he makes it onto the Brooklyn Dodgers' roster in 1947.
His fellow Dodgers at first circulate a petition stating they will not play with a black player, with only Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) refusing to sign (as a man with a wife and newborn child, he does not want to risk his family's financial future and fails to see why Robinson can't play if he is good enough to do so). The Dodgers' manager, Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) makes it clear: play or leave. Almost all the Dodgers quickly fall in line. As the season continues, Robinson is not greeted warmly by baseball fans, convinced this is a white man's game. Still, things inside and outside the dugout are tense.
Philadelphia (the City of Brotherly Love) has no love for the black man. The Dodgers' regular hotel rescinds their booking rather than have a black man stay. The Phillies' manager, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) uses the most vulgar taunts against Robinson while the latter's at bat. (He rationalizes his behavior by stating that he makes anti-Jewish remarks to Hank Greenberg and Italian slurs at Joe DiMaggio when they're playing...hence, he's an equal-opportunity idiot). Slowly, steadily, most of the Dodgers began standing with their teammate. In particular was Reese, a man with Southern roots (and the accent to prove it), but who publicly stood alongside Robinson in front of his hometown crowd of St. Louis because it was the right thing to do.
In terms of performances Boseman acquitted himself well as Robinson. He wasn't given a great deal to work with in regards to the man behind the myth but he did well in quiet moments. When he is looking at his newborn, we get a short monologue about how unlike his own father, Jackie was going to be part of his child's life, make him proud. In another scene early in 42, he makes his displeasure at not being allowed to use the restroom because it's forbidden by the owner (I can't recall if there was a 'Whites Only' on the door, but my memory says there wasn't, thus there was nothing officially preventing Robinson from using it). Those moments, those when we see Robinson's outrage at discrimination and the importance of his family, were good but sadly too few.
Ford clearly loved playing Rickey, giving the crafty Dodgers owner a gruff voice that is different from what we usually see in a Harrison Ford performance. I thought it the strongest performance from Ford in a long time: we got to see the character of Branch Rickey, someone who has a mixture of shrewd business acumen and moral outrage to his decision to integrate Major League Baseball.
In smaller parts Meloni's somewhat libertine Durocher gave 42 bits of humor (when Rickey, over the phone, tells Durocher that the Bible has a few things about adultery, he replies that he's sure it probably does). Tudyk's Chapman is more the main figure of the bigotry Robinson faced in that crucial 1947 season (one is aghast at how casual Chapman's bigotry is, with his rationale that shouting out slurs at blacks, Jews, and Italians is all part of the game). However, the important thing here is that Chapman is made to be the idiot he was, which makes Robinson's professionalism and more importantly, talent, all that much better revenge.
Of particular note is Lucas' Pee Wee Reese. Lucas is just so likeable as the shortstop, one who doesn't have any bigotry himself and who believes if one has the talent then one should be given the chance regardless of background. In another of those quiet scenes, Reese walks into Rickey's office to talk about a letter he's received about someone objecting to him playing with a black man. Reese worries about his safety and that of his family, but Rickey almost dismissively draws his attention to the mountains of letters Robinson has received. When he is told that Robinson is perfectly aware of the letters, we can see Reese realizing that his one note is chump change to what his teammate (whom he seems to truly like) has been quietly enduring. Reese's own courage in standing so publicly aside his beleaguered teammate is well-done, with both Lucas and Boseman making it a good, solid moment that speaks to both their acting abilities and the character of their characters.
There are a few negative things in 42. Beharie's Rachel Robinson is given the somewhat thankless task of being merely the supportive wife (though in a scene where she dares to go into a Whites Only Women's Restroom notes her own courage), and we have to have typically stirring music when Robinson hits a home run (courtesy of Mark Isham). We also have some clunky editing at the beginning: we shift from the search for the perfect black player to Robinson's Negro League team arriving at the gas station then BACK to the search only to find the search ended at the exact time the Kansas City Monarchs were filling up. A little confusing. The voice-over narration and subplot of black sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), while not bad, was at times distracting (longtime readers know what I think of voice-overs...). Finally, wouldn't it have been great to have seen that little white boy that Rickey told Robinson about actually attempting to imitate a black man rather than being told about him? A lost opportunity.
However, 42 is meant to be an inspirational film about an extraordinary athlete and man whose character on and off the field (as well as his remarkable ability to steal bases) earned him a place in the hearts of Americans. It might be safe and respectable, but since the film was meant to be that, one appreciates both 42 and Number 42.