With Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Lucas Black, Andre Holland. Written by and directed by Brian Helgeland. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including language. 128 minutes.
Let’s just say it right out: the first great film of 2013 has arrived. 42 is the story of how Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) hired him to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It is a home run.
One can’t overstate the story’s importance not only in baseball history but in American history. World War II had ended and African-American veterans returned home, where Jim Crow laws still prevailed in a number of states and blacks were second-class citizens. Rickey, moved by his religious beliefs and his passion for baseball, decided he was going to do something about it, and sought out Robinson to be the first non-white player in major league sports.
For those who didn’t live through it, the scenes of crowds booing Robinson simply because of the color of his skin are shocking. The open racism of the Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) – screaming the “N-word” while Robinson is at the plate – is beyond appalling. However writer/director Brian Helgeland doesn’t turn this in an Afterschool Special with an “important lesson.” We see the impact this has on Robinson and the people around him. Watch the evolution of Dodgers star shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), who goes from rejecting a move by his teammates to refuse to play with Robinson to publicly showing his support and friendship… after being threatened if he did so. There are numerous moments that make solid points without giving us a concussion in the process.
Indeed, Helgeland’s emerging directorial skills have finally caught up with his established screenwriting credits, which include “L. A. Confidential” and “Mystic River.” He knows when to underplay the material and when to let fly, as in a scene where Robinson – humiliated but unable to respond because that would be giving the bigots what they want – goes into a walkway behind the dugout and lets loose with the emotions he’s had to keep pent-up inside. Later we see the education of a young boy accompanying his racist father to a game as he reacts to what he sees around him.
Helgeland is aided by a stellar cast. Boseman, a TV actor with some minor film credits, commands the screen as Robinson, showing us just how hard it was to win the larger fight by simply being a great ballplayer. This is a star-making turn. Harrison Ford turns in the performance of his career as Branch Rickey. It’s not too early to start speculating about next year’s Oscars, and whether his studio will position him to be nominated for best actor or best supporting actor. Ford lets us see that Rickey is a true American hero as well.
The supporting cast is similarly strong and surprises us at every turn, from John McGinley as sportscaster Red Barber to Max Gail as a retired manager brought in when the Dodger’s regular manager is suspended for the season. Nicole Beharie’s portrayal of Rachel Robinson shows how her love and dignity provided a much needed anchor in her husband’s life, while Andre Holland plays a black reporter covering Robinson who has to sit in the stands with his typewriter because the press box is still segregated.
“42” instantly enters the pantheon of great baseball movies, but it’s much more than that. It’s a history lesson about America and about how, no matter how painful it might be, in the end we struggle to do the right thing.•••
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Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.