Review: '42' takes on an epic and epochal story and doesn't blow it
Earnest, righteous, historically accurate and often entertaining, writer-director Brian Helgeland's “42” is pretty much all you could hope for in a Jackie Robinson film biography.
It's the sort of story that you find yourself hoping they don't screw up — that the baseball will be convincing, that the racism isn't watered down, that the actor playing Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) comes off as a human being, not an icon. And in those regards, “42” scores.
A brief history lesson — the narrated-over-newsreel footage context of the end of World War II — is followed by a much longer one, as we see Robinson selected to integrate baseball by Branch Rickey, the cagey old Brooklyn Dodgers general manager and president.
Rickey (Harrison Ford) hunts high and low for a black ballplayer of talent, modesty and forbearance. He needs a star who can take a lot of racist abuse from fans, players, umpires and others. Robinson, a four-sport athlete at UCLA and star of the Kansas City Monarchs, fit the bill.
Helgeland, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (“L.A. Confidential”) and skilled storyteller (“Mystic River”), provides his cleverest touches in the ways he makes Robinson's story resonate today. The California native had bristled at Southern segregation while in the Army. Helgeland plays up the racial threats Robinson received in spring training at Sanford, Fla.
He shows us a grand arc among the players, many of whom signed a petition to keep Robinson off the Dodgers. They witness the racism of opponents, fans and others.
Boseman, the center of it all, makes for a rather stoic-and-bland Robinson, which was what Rickey was shooting for but which doesn't do the movie any favors in the spark department.
Alan Tudyk gives a spittle-spewing racist vent to Phillies manager Ben Chapman, and Lucas Black is absolutely perfect as the drawling star Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, whose role in that season that changed America — 1947 — could easily have been forgotten, but which Helgeland movingly remembers.
It's the setting, the tone and the sentiment that “42” masters — the comically primitive attitudes of some of the white majority, the black fans and children inspired by Robinson's odyssey, the barriers that today's youth might be shocked to know ever existed.
And it's that affection for the game and the history that make “42” worth experiencing as a movie.
Roger Moore reviews movies for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.