42 is an exceptional story told unexceptionally. As a depiction of the trailblazing story of Jackie Robinson, who shattered the color barrier for professional baseball (and really for all pro sports), its subject matter is worthier than its execution. Then again, that's not necessarily a fault of the movie, per se. Jackie Robinson is a revered figure (and rightly so), thus it has to be some kind of a crime that the last time his life was given a filmic translation was more than sixty years ago, when Robinson was not only alive, but young enough to play himself.
In that sense, 42 is perhaps simply the long-in-coming celluloid serenade that Robinson so richly deserves. Certainly, writer/director Brian Helgeland (an Oscar winner for his script for L.A. Confidential) goes to great pains to depict the visceral reality of the many struggles Robinson (played with aplomb by relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman) had to overcome as the first one through that wall. As one would expect, we have the requisite scenes of our hero dealing with social and systemic racism within and without the world of professional baseball.
We see him bumped off a plane in favor of white passengers. We see him dealing with the heckling of a rival team's racist manager (Alan Tudyk). We see him fight against and eventually overcome the racism of his own teammates on the Brooklyn Dodgers, who go from first circulating a petition proclaiming their refusal to play with him, to eventually fighting for him on the baseball diamond. This is inspiring stuff, no doubt. And that inspirational quality is obviously elevated because it's all true. So, why then does it all feel so detached and at a distance?
Part of that is a failing of the script itself, which leapfrogs over huge stretches of time so it can take us from Robinson's discovery while playing in the Negro Leagues to his eventual role as a key component in the Dodgers' turnaround. The film is so propelled by the packed itinerary that we rarely get a chance to know Robinson beyond his place as a harbinger of history, ironically reducing him to a token in a movie that should be all about fighting against tokenism. Other than a few cursory nods (which are effective, mind you), we don't get those moments of doubt, of fear, of panic as the full import of what he was attempting dawns on him.
And then there's co-star Harrison Ford as the Dodgers' general manager Branch Rickey, the man who plucked Robinson from obscurity and knowingly placed the weight of history on his shoulders unbidden. Ford is now at that stage of his career where he's begun the long walk all leading men eventually undergo as they transition into character parts. And, to his credit, Ford does his best to subsume himself into the character. The problem (and I'm willing to admit that this may be entirely me), is that Harrison Ford is still Harrison Ford.
Try as he might (and he does try), the Indiana Jones star can never fully disappear, even with an exaggerated gait and affected delivery. He also isn't done any favors by Helgeland's broad-strokes construction of Rickey's character, a man who had the foresight to recognize the reality that changing demographics meant professional sports were going to change. Although there is a revealing conversation between Rickey and Robinson late in the film that exposes some of his reasons for supporting this change, it still can't help but feel at times like Robinson is a spectator to his own story.
42 is made with obvious affection for the man whose story it lionizes, but it falls short thanks largely to its stolid determination to keep the real man forever at arm's length from the audience, largely remaining a stoic cipher from beginning to end. While it's a compelling story, it can't help but be a compelling story, with an underdog arc sure to get viewers primed and on their feet. Nonetheless, it still comes off like a sanitized, greatest-hits take on Robinson's life. AReader's Digest version that services the legend rather than the man who inspired it. C+