Published Apr 11, 2013The most remarkable aspect of Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American Major League baseball player is how routinely he went about the business of baseball in the face of such extreme opposition. As captured in Brian Helgeland's stirring and evocative 42, Robinson's greatest virtues didn't lie in the esteemed skills he displayed with any bat or glove, but rather his almost unfathomable stoicism.
The movie wastes little time with set-up, using an early scene to depict how the eventual fate of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) could very well have been that of any number of other Negro League players in 1945. Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), insisting that talent shows no regard for skin color, carefully selects a file on Robinson from a stack and extends he and his new wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), an invite to attend the team's Spring Training in Florida.
Helping Jackie deal with the inevitable catcalls and startlingly overt racism he faces — first while playing in the minors with the Montreal Royals, then during his time with Brooklyn — Rickey's motivations remain intriguingly cloudy despite being periodically called into question. The film's structure is appropriately episodic in nature, with setbacks like an opposing team threatening to boycott a game if Jackie is on the field offset by the highs of Robinson becoming a father or the encouragement of electrified fans.
The first act is a little stiff, coming across more as a series of biographical events being ticked off while sacrificing a fair amount of humanity in the process. But character begins to present itself in the day-to-day struggle of defying such deeply ingrained prejudice. If the events do feel somewhat repetitive, in the way blind hatred seems to lurk around every corner, it's easy to imagine that's how it must have felt for Robinson.
The performances are all effective, with Ford, in particular, appearing to relish the opportunity to play outside his comfort zone. Baseball fans will appreciate the authenticity and attention to detail, with ample screen time for renowned Dodgers like Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater). In portraying adulterous Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, Christopher Meloni has a great moment where he calls his divided team together in the middle of the night to assure them all that Robinson may be the first, but he certainly won't be the last.
Watching Jackie, as he dances away from a base, rattle a pitcher, it's clear why he would persevere. There were always those ineffable moments when the strife dissipated and all that remained was his simple love for a game. (Warner)