No one argues that Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson could slide into a base like a man on fire. It was a bitch to tag him out. 42, the film that details Robinson’s groundbreaking start as the first African-American since the 1880s to cross major league baseball’s color line, would be easy to tag out as a tear-jerking civics lesson like The Blind Side. But writer-director Brian Helgeland touches home on the story’s sheer emotional velocity. 42, named for the jersey number Robinson wore for the Brooklyn Dodgers when he joined them in 1947, lives up to its subtitle: The True Story of an American Legend.
Playing a legend can be hell on an actor trying to stay both reverent and real. No. 42 portrayed himself in 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story, and barely skimmed the surface. 42, which dodges biopic clichés by focusing only on that first season, picks a winner in Chadwick Boseman, who has credits in film (The Express) and TV (Lincoln Heights), and deeper roots in theater as a playwright, director and actor. Boseman shrewdly eases into the role, showing the contained, cautious outsider in Robinson as he enters the racist world of white baseball.
Harrison Ford hams it up with gusto as Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Dodgers. It wasn’t idealism alone that spurred Rickey to sign Robinson to a farm team in 1945. He saw dollar signs if he could successfully integrate baseball. But he couldn’t afford a hothead pioneer. Cigar in hand, Rickey tells Robinson, “I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.”
Rickey sics Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (a superb Christopher Meloni) on players who sign a petition protesting Robinson. But 42 is out there alone. The dramatic tension comes in watching him not go medieval on the ass of bigots, notably Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), who uses the n-word with a frequency unheard since Django Unchained. Boseman’s eyes burn with 42’s inner torment. He damn near loses it when slurs are hurled at his devoted wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie). Alone with Rickey, he shatters a bat against a stadium wall.
It’s a shameful chapter in sports history, and 42 honors Robinson’s resistance. Sweet revenge comes on the field as 42 shows up the jerks by playing killer baseball, diving for a line drive or stealing a base, fi st raised. Corny? You bet. Also inspiring. Is that enough? Given Helgeland’s rep as a screenwriter (including an Oscar for 1997’s L.A. Confidential), it rankles that 42 settles for the official story. The private Robinson, who died of a heart attack at 53 in 1972, stays private. We stay on the outside looking in. Let it be. At the top of a new baseball season, it’s hard not to root for a movie that’s in it for the love of the game.