The Jackie Robinson Story
42 is directed by Brian Helgeland and stars Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Alan Tudyk, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, and Ryan Merriman.
Unquestionably, one of the greatest stories in the history of Major League Baseball is the story of Jackie Robinson. If you want any definitive proof as to what Jackie Robinson meant to the game of baseball, then consider this: Robinson's number 42 jersey is retired across all major league teams, and every year on April 15th, Major League Baseball celebrates "Jackie Robinson Day", on which every player wears the number 42. The significance of April 15th is that Jackie Robinson made his major league debut on April 15, 1947, which was Opening Day for that season. Sure, Robinson didn't go on to win multiple championships like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and all of those other classic New York Yankees players from way back in the day, but what 42 attempts to emphasize is the importance that Robinson brought to the game, an importance not defined by how many home runs he hit or how many World Series championships he won, but by redefining who was allowed to play the game.
The story of 42 tells of Jackie Robinson's (Boseman) importance in shattering the baseball color line. For decades, Major League Baseball only allowed white players to play; black baseball players played in their own Negro Leagues. Then in 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Ford) considers looking for a black baseball player, choosing Robinson after seeing his impressive credentials. Rickey finds Robinson and invites him to Brooklyn, offering him a contract under the condition that Robinson controls his temper during games. Robinson agrees, and he earns a roster spot on the minor league team: the Montreal Royals. Robinson eventually advances to play for the Dodgers, but both on and off the field, he experiences harsh racism.
Racism or any other form of prejudice isn't anything brand spanking new in sports movies, but 42 can get away with being a little preachy, because the story of Jackie Robinson really was that big of a deal. And yet, 42 is not at all preachy; there's no grandiose, inspirational speeches, nor long, drawn-out scenes of Robinson explaining what baseball means to him and how the color of his skin can't prevent him from playing. Granted, the movie doesn't explore so much who Jackie Robinson was as a person. It cares more for Robinson's journey of getting to the Dodgers and overcoming any and all racial barriers along the way. The movie's time frame spans from Robinson meeting Branch Rickey to right before the Dodgers played in the 1947 World Series, admittedly with some historically inaccurate happenings in between.
- The best thing about 42 is how inspirational it makes itself out to be, not just because you can watch it knowing it's based on a true story. Brian Helgeland creates a lot of feel-good magic out of the film's various baseball game scenes, particularly one in which Robinson is harassed by the opposing team's manager (Alan Tudyk). Robinson unleashes all of his built-up rage by heading into the dugout and smashing a baseball bat to pieces (something that Robinson's wife claimed to have never happened). The feel-good magic of this scene comes from when one of Robinson's teammates walks over to the manager and berates him for his comments, assuring Robinson that his teammates have his back. What makes the movie inspirational is how Helgeland organizes scenes together in a way that makes you feel like this movie version of Jackie Robinson has earned the love and adoration of not just his own black community, but the respect and appreciation of many in the white community as well. He learns how to successfully play first base, he shows off his speed through his adept ability to steal bases, and no matter how many of his buttons are pushed, he keeps his promise of not losing his temper and blowing up on someone. It may not be exactly how the real Jackie Robinson did things, but for the sake of being an inspiring biopic, 42 accomplishes the more-difficult-than-usual task of being inspiring.
- As the movie only explores a small part of Jackie Robinson's life, it does play things a little too safe. Nothing is mentioned of Robinson's early life, particularly how he came to knew in his youth that he wanted to spend his life playing baseball. Other interesting events from later in Robinson's life such as his involvement in the civil rights movement and his contribution in founding the Freedom National Bank are not explored. The movie cares solely for Jackie Robinson the baseball player, with the minor subplots only there to, in some shape or form, enhance that title. And considering the slightly over two hours run time, Helgeland got enough mileage out of what he makes of Robinson's early Major League Baseball days. He must have given some thought to exploring more of Robinson's life, but didn't want to run the risk of having himself a three and a half hour mega biopic on his hands.
Despite the movie playing things safe, 42 thrives as an inspiring biopic that successfully brings one of the greatest stories in all of baseball to the big screen. The movie earns its claim to inspiration and does not force any kind of heavy-handed messaging on its audience, something that normally should not happen in a sports biopic. You may not think the movie can get a whole lot out of such a short time period of Jackie Robinson's life, but Brian Helgeland finds a way. If not quite a home run of a sports movie, then 42 is a solid hit, and for an important story like that of Jackie Robinson's, that's what we should hope for.
Recommend? Yes, especially if you love playing and/or watching baseball.
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