Hollywood goes for the formulaic in 42. A biopic about barrier-breaking baseball great Jackie Robinson, the film scratches the surface of history and diminishes Robinson’s very real human achievement by casting him in the ill-defined haze of myth.
Born in 1919 in Cairo, Ga., Robinson left the Jim Crow-era South and became a college sports star at UCLA. Following a disheartening stint in the U.S. Army, he played for the Negro American League’s Kansas City Monarchs and, in 1947, broke the major league baseball color line when he made his debut with the all-white Brooklyn Dodgers.
Robinson and his success in professional sports is a great American story that deserves top-tier biopic treatment. 42, self-conscious as it is, shallow and burdened by an imitation Aaron Copland orchestral score that’s always announcing momentousness, is not that treatment.
42 has moments of power and clarity, scenes when the importance of Robinson’s accomplishment and Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey’s bold decision to bring a black athlete to the team break through writer-director Brian Helgeland’s otherwise stodgy storytelling.
Some scenes are moving, especially those depicting both the racial abuse and acceptance Robinson experienced early in his professional baseball career.
But many things don’t work, including the haphazard framing of Robinson’s story through Wendell Smith, an African-American sportswriter who Rickey hired to be Robinson’s guide in dealing with sportswriters. Robinson’s relationship with his wife, Rachel, the nursing student he met at UCLA and married in 1946, is another example of the screenplay’s superficial strokes.
Playing Rickey, 70-year-old Harrison Ford depicts the then 65-year-old baseball executive as a tough old codger who possesses both a practical businessman’s mind and an open heart. Ford wears his elderly character comfortably and gets the movie’s best lines.
Chadwick Boseman, an actor who thus far has appeared in a few feature films and lots of television, plays Robinson as a young man who must contain his anger amidst the taunts that accompany his entry into the major leagues.
It’s an earnest performance but, like so much of 42, it stays on the surface. Unlike the recent Abraham Lincoln biopic — another biopic that focuses narrowly upon a few years in its famous subject’s life — the Robinson that Boseman and Helgeland put on screen is not tangible enough to send audiences out of theaters thinking they’ve been in the presence of a great man or learn much about him.
Helgeland’s script gives Boseman little to grasp. It’s also too obviously the work of a modern writer, too contemporary to transport moviegoers to the bygone mid-1940s, leaving the production’s abundant vintage automobiles and wardrobe looking like so much window dressing.