‘42’: Stealing home

April 11, 2013

Brian Helgeland’s “42” is an old-fashioned film in the most modern sense of the term.

Even as it embraces big-screen storytelling that takes us back to a golden era of history, it gives uplift without ignoring the pain and sacrifice that went into the achievements being depicted.

This story of Jackie Robinson’s first two years in white baseball – including his history-making, barrier-breaking debut season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 – recaptures not just Robinson’s achievement but the brutal obstacles he faced, both physical and psychological, not to mention verbal to a disgusting degree.

In telling Robinson’s story, Helgeland doesn’t dwell on the endless barrage of racist bile that Robinson (and his wife) endured, but he doesn’t shy from it either. As a result, Robinson’s achievement takes on more meaning and more power.

Helgeland also wisely divides his focus between Robinson (played with charismatic restraint by Chadwick Boseman), Rachel Robinson (a smart and cogent Nicole Beharie) and Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford channeling Lionel Barrymore). Each of these individuals plays a major role, but there is a synergy and an interdependence that gives the characters more meaning, to each other and to the audience.

For good measure, the script includes Wendell Smith, referred to by some as the Jackie Robinson of sportswriters. A writer for one of the most influential black newspapers of the time, Smith recommended Robinson to Rickey and became companion to the Robinsons during his 1946 season with minor-league Montreal and his 1947 debut in Brooklyn. Andre Holland gives him a brash, protective quality, playing Smith as someone who understands what Robinson means long before Robinson does.

Helgeland establishes early on that the world whose barrier Robinson broke had the same attitudes toward race 65 years ago that are still being evinced against gay marriage today. But those attitudes toward race were shockingly even more widespread and outspoken. Yet the script – particularly what is bound to be its most provocative scene – feels real.

In that scene, Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) stands on the field in front of the Philly dugout as Robinson comes to bat, heckling Robinson repeatedly with “Hey, nigger, nigger, nigger.” If people were shocked by Quentin Tarantino’s use of the word in “Django Unchained,” they may be unnerved when crowds in the stands scream the same hateful racial invective at Robinson as he visits such benighted outposts as Philadelphia and Cincinnati.

Boseman gives Robinson the wary reserve of someone trying to simply do his own thing in constantly hostile territory. But he also wears Robinson’s dignity with the self-assurance of someone who believes in his right to be there. Boseman’s Robinson doesn’t see himself as a symbol – he’s simply a fierce competitor battling to be allowed to play against the best.

Branch Rickey has a wiliness you don’t usually see in a Harrison Ford character. There’s a difference between being intelligent (a characteristic Ford embodies easily) and being crafty, something with which Ford imbues Rickey. But he also finds his tough business sense and his moral center. Recruiting Robinson is a business decision, but Ford shows us that it was one that also required moral courage.

Beharie and Holland also add to the mix, playing formidable characters with whom Robinson and Rickey must contend. Beharie’s Rachel is as much a partner in that marriage as Jackie. Holland’s Smith, meanwhile, is a battler as well, one who understands how he can help Robinson and, as a result, their standing in a segregated America.

“42” deals with big emotions – national pride, racism, the exhilaration of achievement in the face of tremendous obstacles. It allows you to feel them without stacking the deck or pushing obvious buttons. Instead, it lets the story itself – and the heroic figure who was Jackie Robinson, in all his pained humanity – pack the punch.

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