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42: The Jackie Robinson Story

2013 | 128 min | PG-13 | 2.39:1

42: The Jackie Robinson Story


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Theatrical release date

 12 April, 2013
 13 September, 2013

Country of origin

 United States

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Screenshots from 42 Blu-ray

42: The Jackie Robinson Story Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, April 11, 2013

Jackie Robinson was a miraculous baseball player, but one would never know that after watching the bio-pic “42.” Instead of focusing on a sterling Major League Baseball career that lasted for nine years, the feature only covers Robinson’s introductory season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he faced torrential amounts of bigotry as he broke the color barrier. Racism is primarily on the mind of writer/director Brian Helgeland, and it often results in dramatic dead ends, beating the same drum of intolerance while a towering portrait of a sporting legend is left behind. “42” isn’t a baseball movie, it’s a flaccid, obvious melodrama with occasional moments of dazzling diamond activity. What a shame.

Coming to the realization that the growing black audience for the Negro Leagues could translate into big bucks for the MLB, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (an enjoyably growly Harrison Ford, in a rare character part) works to find a skilled player willing to break into an all-white league. Coming across the fiercely talented and strong-willed Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), Rickey has found his man, bringing the overwhelmed player to the minor leagues to test out the strength of his character as racist players, officials, and fans set out to torment the new addition. With the support of wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), Jackie begins to fulfill his destiny as a star player, hoping to earn the respect and the tolerance of his fellow teammates. Looking to create a stir, Rickey moves Jackie to the major leagues, trusting his talent will silence the steady ugliness that threatens to cave in the infielder’s spirit. Now faced with the prospect of being the lone black player in a white league, Jackie encounters numerous tests of patience and self-preservation as a gale force wind of hate urges him to quit the game.

“42” doesn’t elect a traditional route of bio-pic storytelling to bring Jackie Robinson to the big screen. It picks up in 1946, as America rebounds post-war with renewed interest in baseball, celebrating the elimination of worldwide evil and the liberation of the oppressed with its own segregation laws. Instead of tracing a childhood in a broken home and discovering his fervor for the game, we meet Jackie as a seasoned Negro League hotshot with quick hands and feet, having a ball stealing base after base. It’s apparent in the opening act that Helgeland (who hasn’t directed a feature since 2003’s “The Order”) isn’t interested in studying the formation of skill and the thirst for victory, as “42” is more about Rickey’s bold acts of integration during a tumultuous era, passing on baseball particulars to inspect the extent of derision that greeted Jackie as he entered the MLB system.

Character development is attempted with the relationship between Jackie and Rachel, though the legend’s wife isn’t afforded the complexity she deserves, reduced to a saintly soul of babymaking and support as the rock in the ballplayer’s life. The rest of “42” colors with Crayola, turning sensitive situations of racial hostility and crippling frustration into crude emphasis and simplistic conflict, watching the rest of the Dodgers (including Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese and Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca) reduced to cartoon acts of protest and acceptance as Jackie makes his presence felt. And there’s a strong element of bigotry, spat out by apple-cheeked southerners with all the subtlety of a “Chappelle’s Show” skit. Helgeland issues a few awful scenes along the way that delve into the slur-laced pressure facing Jackie, carving out a considerable amount of screen time for the saga of Phillies manager Ben Chapman (played without a drop of sophistication by Alan Tudyk), who’s determined to rattle the famous Dodger in a most ugly manner. “42” doesn’t break out of its tedious intimidation routine, which eventually comes to blur the picture’s focus on Jackie, slowly making him a supporting character despite Boseman’s charmingly authoritative performance. The Jackie Robinson of “42” is more of a baseball card than a hot-blooded man of barely concealed doubt, and though the period baseball scenes are atmospheric, they aren’t energized in manner that befits the cracking spirit of the sport.

“42” is exaggerated to play to mainstream tastes, and while there’s nothing wrong with a rousing picture of personal triumph, Helgeland sacrifices a sense of realism for unappealing mythmaking (along the lines of the 1950 quickie, “The Jackie Robinson Story”). We don’t see Jackie often enough as a man, only as a vague figure of contempt and inspiration. It’s a simplistic effort that’s out to celebrate a legend, yet its thinness and relative disinterest in the subject’s baseball appeal keeps “42” confused and underwhelming. It’s an earnest endeavor, but for 2013, it’s about time the true grit of Jackie Robinson is celebrated, not just the thick outline of his bravery.

Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Alan Tudyk, Christopher Meloni, Lucas Black, John C. McGinley
Director: Brian Helgeland

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