Sometimes a movie is based on characters or events that are so compelling it is almost impossible to screw it up. Just deliver the goods, get out of the way and you are pretty much guaranteed to have a decent movie on your hands.
Such is the case with “42,” the story of Jackie Robinson and his trials and tribulations while becoming the first black man to play major league baseball.
If you let yourself think about it, you could lament the fact that this is not a great movie because you get the sense that in bolder hands it easily could have been tremendous.
I found myself satisfied with the fact that “42” is merely a good movie because Robinson’s story is so profoundly important, not just in baseball history, but in the scope of American history as well.
This movie is such a layup I’m more surprised by the fact it’s been more than 60 years since this story was last dramatized on film. Just to underscore how long ago that was, Robinson was still playing major league baseball when he agreed to play himself in the mostly-forgotten “The Jackie Robinson Story.”
Robinson is solidly played here by Chadwick Boseman, who conveys the conviction and courage of a man who broke the color barrier in the national pastime and endured cruel and demeaning treatment all while winning over hearts and minds with the swing of a bat.
There are some nice little supporting performances sprinkled throughout the movie, like Nicole Beharie as Robinson’s dutiful wife, Rachel, Christopher Meloni as the Dodgers’ outspoken manager, Leo Durocher, Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman, the horrifyingly racist manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, and John C. McGinley, who eerily channels the spirit of Dodgers’ radio announcer Red Barber.
The most interesting performance in “42” is by Harrison Ford as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ President Branch Rickey. Ford has never been known as much of a character actor, to the point that he has rather admirably built a career by playing himself in movie after movie.
But he is surprisingly good as Rickey, a man with the gumption and charisma to make such a daring, earth-shattering move like bringing on Robinson seem like nothing more than a savvy business decision.
It’s also pretty clear that Ford is having a lot of fun with this part as he gravels up his voice and winningly chews over lines like, “I like Robinson. He’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist.”
If “42” was a movie that packed a little more punch, Ford would be looking at a surefire Academy Award nomination.
“42” was written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who, in spite of his impressive career as a screenwriter, will always be remembered for helming the unconventional and whimsical “A Knight’s Tale.”
Helgeland is a good director, especially when he is taking chances. Perhaps that’s why it is a little odd that “42” plays its cards so close to the vest, although I can only assume that is out of respect for the material.
Then again that is what is so amazing and profound about Robinson’s story; you don’t have to dress it up at all for it to still be powerful, moving, and inspirational.
Could “42” have been a better movie? Most likely. Is it still one of the best movies to come out in 2013 in spite of its shortcomings? Most definitely.
“42” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language.