Whenever we think of racism in america, the first thing that comes to mind is always the deep south. What might not come to mind is Pittsburgh, or Philadelphia, or Brooklyn. This is one of the misapprehensions that many will find themselves faced with when they walk into this movie; the concept that we can’t just blame one part of the country for the sort of hateful, idiotic bigotry that stained our nation for such a long period of its history. At the time, baseball acted as a sort of melting pot in which one group’s prejudices could poison the entire nation, and it’s this poison that made segregation on a national level possible in Major League Baseball even after the majority of the country had begun to move into the future. This is the world that Jackie Robinson turned upside down with a combination of personal restraint and inarguable mastery of the game, and it’s this factor which never ceases to remind us that Robinson’s story is one that stretches beyond the field and into the annals of civil rights history. It may confine itself a bit too much to genre standards than some critics may desire, but a strong set of performances combined with an unwavering sense of respect for the characters it is based on make 42 an effectively inspirational experience fitting of the incredible man it is based off of.
The life story of Jackie Robinson and his history-making signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers under the guidance of team executive Branch Rickey.
Any movies based on real events can’t quite be judged in terms of plot on the same level an original film would be. There’s usually some sort of trade-off between compelling story-telling and truthfulness to real life, and no matter where you end up on that scale some people will be unhappy with the end results. Not being an expert on Robinson’s life, I can’t speak as to how close the movie comes to matching what actually happened. What I can say is that the execution of the premise is pretty straightforward, and if you’ve seen any sports movie in the past several decades you probably won’t find much to surprise you. That being said, the story itself is interesting enough to not need a lot of twists and turns, so I wasn’t bothered much by the predictability issues.
The Writing: 8/10
The screenplay, written by director Brian Helgeland, is by far one of the biggest factors that sets the movie apart from similar sports biopics. I was very impressed with how well the writing was able to strike a balance between wit and emotional weight, both of which are necessary to keep the movie entertaining enough to keep crowds happy but strong enough to convey the emotional weight of what the characters are going through. Some of the best examples of this can be seen in Robinson and Rickey’s interactions, including the highly promoted “I want someone with the guts not to fight back” scene.
Other than the dialogue itself, I was also impressed with how the movie characterized a lot of its major players, Branch Rickey in particular. Instead of painting him as a bleeding-heart civil-rights advocate and attempting to make him out to be some sort of crusader of anti-segregation efforts, Helgeland portrays him as a pragmatic businessman with a love of the game that transcends racial issues. The practical arguments he makes to the people who question him serve as a conduit to express the rational defeat of racial prejudice.
The Acting: 8/10
It’s one thing to find an actor who looks like the person you’re making a movie out of, but it’s another to find a doppleganger who can actually act. Luckily, in this case the casting team struck gold on both accounts with Chadwick Boseman, whose awkward name is completely offset by his performance here. Robinson’s character is one that is simultaneously confident, resentful and conflicted with the role of non-aggression forced upon him, all of which make it even easier for the audience to root for him when he comes closer and closer to breaking under the enormous pressure placed upon him. Boseman handles all of these forces extremely well, coming across as both proud and justifiably furious.
There are quite a few supporting characters who make moderate marks upon the film as a whole (including some great semi-cameos by Alan Tudyk, John C. McGinley and Christopher Meloni), but Ford is the one who real steals the most scenes. Aside from my aforementioned appreciation of the character himself, Ford’s performance is really what brings life to the man. While I still feel like Ford’s notoriety was a little distracting sometimes (he’ll always be Han Solo and Indiana Jones no matter what role he takes), there is still no doubt in my mind that this part stands as Ford’s strongest performance in decades.
The Drama: 7/10
The same issues with the plot are the same issues I had with the dramatic aspect of the film. There’s a cap on how much drama a film can create when it follows a familiar formula, but it should go to 42‘s credit that it uses up 100% of that cap with the endearing nature of its characters. Sure, there isn’t that much done here from a filming or directing angle that hasn’t been done before by countless other sports movies, but the very nature of this sort of movie makes audiences to expect those sorts of inspirational devices from a movie like this.
My last note here, though would be that this is probably the first sports movie I’ve ever seen that doesn’t use a real montage at any point during the movie. Usually the formula for a sports movie goes like this; Scouting, Training, First game(s), montage through the rest of the season, Championship. Instead of montage-ing its way through things, 42 takes things game by game, tackling different issues for every one until we reach the final clincher.
The Verdict: 7.5/10 – Superior
+ The incredibly true story aids itself to the film’s ability to hold your interest
+ Boseman and Ford give a set of highly memorable performances
+ A great balance between poignant and snappy dialogue from Helgeland’s screenplay
- Pretty similar to most sports movies you’ve seen in terms of inspirational tactics, plot
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Cinematic Katzenjammer: 8.4/10
The Code is Zeek: 3.5/5
Keith and the Movies: 3.5/5
Fast Film Reviews: 3/5