This chronicle of Jackie Robinson’s groundbreaking entry into major league baseball is self-conscious, but is made accessible by a handful of finely-tuned performances. The film features a mesmerizing Harrison Ford as the Dodger’s bellowing team owner Branch Rickey. Determined to integrate major league baseball in both the interest of the game and to draw on a growing black fanbase, Rickey chooses Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) to forge the way.
Reverent to those involved in this endeavor, the story paints Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson and Robinson’s wife as saints, only diverting from that course to track Robinson’s struggle to hold his temper in the arena of 1947 racism. The film shows far less than Robinson endured, while insinuating that white America was more tolerant than our segregation policies and practices of that era indicate.
Robinson’s efforts to desegregate baseball call for his heroic self-control — a struggle to maintain. He draws strength from his supportive wife (Nicole Beharie), as well as from Bible-thumping Branch Rickey.
Christopher Meloni is captivating as Dodgers’ manager, Leo Durocher. To make his rebellious team toe the line, Durocher uses a display of awe-inspiring anger brought persuasively to life by Meloni’s charismatic intensity. Normally practical to a fault, Durocher is portrayed as suffering from a fatal weakness that costs him dearly (a depiction here that departs from actual events).
In addition to overcoming or ignoring the resentment of his own teammates, Robinson makes a difficult switch (downplayed in the film) from shortstop to first baseman. During an early game, Robinson is harassed by Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), whose fondness for denigrating expressions includes “nigger” and “porch monkey.” It is one of many moments when Robinson barely keeps his word to Branch Rickey, who insisted that no matter what abuse he must endure, Robinson “will at all times behave like a fine gentlemen.”
It helps Robinson’s cause that he is practically superhuman both on the field, and at bat, where his average is far above average. The film finds some humor in Rickey’s rants, or from Robinson’s base-stealing strategies, each receiving their fair share of screen-time. If Chadwick Boseman was initially cast for his uncanny resemblance to Robinson, he rises to the task, conveying both Robinson’s fears and determination.
“42” depicts Robinson’s marriage as perfection, with nary a hint of discord, despite the stress of his professional life. Though he fought a mighty inner battle, the only chink in Robinson’s armour shown is pride that makes it nearly impossible to graciously accept the help offered by others. Rickey, a God-fearing man, had a ready remedy. He’d chosen Robinson knowing they shared Methodist beliefs. When other arguments fell short, Rickey recited scripture to his star player.
There’s “no crying in baseball,” but the material for sermons from the mound, is abundant.