Jackie Robinson is one of the most heroic and inspirational figures not just in baseball, but in all of sports. He essentially broke the color barrier in baseball during the 1940s, paving the way for countless athletes of today.
The glossy biopic 42 — which is named for Robinson’s number that has since been retired by all Major League Baseball teams in honor of his legacy — should introduce a new generation of youngsters to a player who they might know by name, but not through his struggle.
Yet those benefits are compromised in this formulaic crowd-pleaser that waters down much of Robinson’s remarkable story. In baseball terms, it swings and misses.
The film focuses primarily on the groundbreaking rookie season for Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, a year after the young superstar from the Negro Leagues is signed by innovative team executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford).
So the infielder becomes the first black player in the National League during a time when baseball was still deeply segregated. He has great talent, but also a short temper that makes it difficult for him not to retaliate against the racist taunts he experiences from fans, opponents, and even teammates.
Ultimately, it’s a story not only about acceptance and determination, but about the power of perception, and Rickey is a savvy businessman who understands that. Their partnership is mutually beneficial.
The approach of director Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale), who also wrote the screenplay, is slick and straightforward from the start. He places too much emphasis on cheap sentimentality while his characters generally lack depth.
Baseball aficionados might get a nostalgic kick from seeing former Dodgers greats from the time, as well as the classic jerseys and ballpark re-creations.
Boseman’s nicely understated performance as Robinson demonstrates a charisma and screen presence that make him an actor to watch. He’s also physically convincing. Ford, meanwhile, effectively captures Rickey’s mannerisms while growling out pearls of wisdom and dismissing naysayers. Helgeland is smart enough to realize that Rickey is a fascinating figure as well, and more than just a glorified sidekick.
The film has its share of powerful moments, which come with the territory. And it could be argued that even this shallow treatment gets the point across. However, considering the accomplishments of its subject both on and off the field, Robinson deserved better than standard-issue Hollywood hagiography.
Rated PG-13, 128 minutes.