The story of Jackie Robinson is a great piece of American history -- one that is worth being retold, particularly to a new generation that, at best, has only a vague idea of what Robinson stood for in his time.
In 1946, for myriad personal and professional reasons, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Branch Rickey signed Jack Roosevelt Robinson -- a four-sport great at UCLA, an Army officer during World War II and an up-and-coming star with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues -- to a minor league contract with the Dodgers' Montreal Royals farm club. He made it clear that at the start of the following season, he had every intention of promoting Robinson to the Dodgers.
Rickey was breaking the color line that had existed unofficially in Major League Baseball since the 1880s. And he had chosen Robinson to do it because he thought the young athlete had the makeup to take the taunts, insults and threats that would certainly greet him -- without responding.
"Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?" Robinson asked Rickey when they first met. No, Rickey responded, "I want a player with enough guts not to fight back."
That scene happens early on in "42," a modern take on Robinson's rise to the big leagues and his first tumultuous year with the Dodgers. "42" is far from a perfect film, but it has a keen sense of the era, oozes a passion for the topic and largely gets the details right. It is an entertaining bit of filmmaking that admirably achieves its goal of capturing Robinson's heroic struggle against the racism of the national pastime.
The film is at its very best early on, as writer-director Brian Helgeland (best known for his writing work on "L.A. Confidential" and "Mystic River") creates a nuanced portrait of America right after World War II. In a series of set pieces that are notable for their visual style and production values, he shows what life was like in the Negro Leagues (particularly in the South) and in the hardscrabble world of Major League Baseball, where even the top players were lucky to make $1,000 a month.
In many ways, "42" is as much Rickey's story as Robinson's, and Harrison Ford gives his best performance in some time as the general manager. He brings to a life a man who, for all his idealism and Methodist principles, saw the economic benefits of bringing the first black player to the majors. Money would also play a major role in the eventual acceptance of Robinson by such teammates as Pee Wee Reese (a sharp performance by Lucas Black) and Eddie Stanky.
In one of the film's best scenes, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" in a terrific bit) tells players who are threatening not to play if Robinson joins the team: "I don't care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a zebra. ... What's more, I say he can make us all rich."
As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman -- a relatively unknown TV and theater actor -- has the unenviable task of bringing humanity to a fierce, proud man who has become something of a mythical figure. Boseman manages to convey a good deal of Robinson's complex nature and also looks fine in the baseball scenes.
In that first season, Robinson was able to remain under control in the face of abuse and discrimination that may be startling for modern audiences. (When Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) flings invective after invective at the young player, it is a cringe-worthy moment but one that illuminates what Robinson went through.) And in what is the climax of the film, he helps to drive the Dodgers to the World Series (the Bums lose to the Yankees in seven games, but that's not part of the movie).
"42" does have flaws. It feels forced toward the end, as Helgeland struggles to fit history into a neat ending. While it's accurate in what it presents, it doesn't include all the facets of the story, particularly the resentment toward Robinson from the big names in the Negro Leagues who felt -- accurately -- that he wasn't the best player and shouldn't get the first shot.
Helgeland's script also fails to bring such intriguing figures as black baseball writer Wendell Smith and Montreal manager Clay Hopper to life, and Mark Isham's self-consciously uplifting score is more distracting than effective.
Still, the story of Jackie Robinson is so inspiring after all these years that it more than survives the shortcomings of "42." If you want a sense of a true all-American hero, this film is a fine place to start.
For film news and more, follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
* * *
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and raw language)
Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Lucas Black and Nicole Beharie
Director: Brian Helgeland
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes