Fact-based sports movies come in all shapes and sizes, from cinematic masterpieces such as “Raging Bull” to deliriously over-rated oddities like “Chariots of Fire.”
The eminently respectable “42,” which recounts the trials and tribulations of Jackie Robinson as the first African-American player in Major League Baseball, falls squarely into the “not bad at all” category. While director/writer Brian Helgeland inevitably employs — or fails to avoid — some of the hoariest visual, thematic and structural cliches of sports biopics, the film is surprisingly effective.
His PG-13 script gives us a reasonably unsanitized depiction of racism circa 1947 and provides convincing portraits of characters who generally fall into two categories — those who rise to the noblest human instincts, and those who are satisfied to dwell at the bottom of the moral food chain.
The film’s integrity is embodied in two performances, those of Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who plucked Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues to wear the No. 42 jersey.
Boseman bears an impressive resemblance to the real Robinson, and his moves on the baseball field give the performance crucial physical credibility. But his evocation of the Robinson persona is what gives the film its muscle.
Simmering with rage at the racist verbal abuse he must endure from fans, opposing teams and even his own teammates, Robinson as played by Boseman is a sobering, often inspiring portrait of a man marshaling far more self control than most of us are ever expected to exhibit.
Boseman (last seen in the college football drama “The Express”) is dazzlingly charismatic, but he also commands great subtlety as an actor. This is a nuanced performance that will linger in the viewer’s mind.
Then there’s Ford, whose performance is remarkable on every level. Rickey, a pious Methodist moved to integrate baseball as a moral imperative mixed with shrewd business motives, is an ideal choice for Ford to make a resounding statement as a full-blown character actor.
He immerses himself in the role, cloaking his normal screen persona with overgrown eyebrows, a prodigious paunch (thanks to padding), bifocals and an ever-present cigar. At the same time, he digs deep to find the character’s emotional core and spiritual resolve. His scenes with Boseman are electric.
The movie is also replete with an ensemble of effective, sometimes outstanding supporting performances. Andre Holland is nicely understated as Wendell Smith, the black journalist who mentored Robinson and documented his transition into the major leagues, while Nicole Beharie is appealing as Robinson’s devoted wife (and source of strength), Rachel.
Rachel and Smith are comparatively bland characters, largely because the viewer is most invested in the primal point of conflict as Robinson and Rickey stand up to a country that had tolerated institutional racism far too long. Far more interesting are the players, good and bad, who must decide which side they’re on.
Alan Tudyk dominates a crucial sequence midway through the film as Ben Chapman, the outrageous manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, who releases torrents of racist epithets every time Robinson enters the batter’s box. Seldom will you see a dirtbag played as well.
Equally vivid is Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, the Dodgers’ plainspoken, womanizing manager who doesn’t care what color his players are as long as they can win. Lucas Black makes a memorable Pee Wee Reese, Robinson’s Kentucky-born teammate who, after some soul-searching, publicly embraces Robinson as a fellow athlete. Also making a strong impression is Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, a player who sympathizes with Robinson.
Disappointingly, the talented John C. McGinley is straight-jacketed as announcer Red Barber, glimpsed in short bursts principally as a tool to push the story along. And the actors playing the most reactionary racist players tend to blur together, morphing into a sort of multi-headed redneck.
The period details — clothes, cars, baseball stadiums — are well-researched, but as with so many such films, the physical environment often feels oddly antiseptic. It looks studied but not lived-in. Even the grime and grit of the dugouts and roadside gas stations seem tidily arranged.
The film’s overriding aesthetic failure, however, can be laid at the feet of composer Mark Isham. He saturates the film with heroic Coplandesque swells that blare an insistent message: This Film Is Very Important.
Do we really need the music to understand that Robinson was a guy with exceptional courage? Nope. Two sequences near the end of the film, including the closing credits, use period songs from the ’40s. The effect is startling. Suddenly the movie acquires a level of authenticity that Isham’s score had utterly failed to deliver.
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to email@example.com.
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WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
•Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post:
“Anchored by a solemn, quietly compelling lead performance ‘42’ possesses the solid bones, honeyed light and transporting moral uplift that define an instant classic: With luck, audiences will treat it as such, and flock to it in numbers that encourage Hollywood to keep making ’em like this.”
•Roger Moore, McClatchy-Tribune:
“It’s the sort of story where you find yourself hoping that they don’t screw it up, that the baseball will be convincing, that the racism isn’t watered down, that the actor playing Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) comes off as a human being, not an icon. And in those regards, ‘42’ scores.”
•David Germain, The Associated Press:
“A class act itself, though not always an engaging act. It’s such a familiar story that any faithful film biography almost inevitably will turn out predictable, even a bit routine.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE, AND THE PAST
Harrison Ford, 70, is supposedly returning to two of the most commercially successful franchises in film history. But in a recent interview, he shed little light on his involvement.
Asked if he could say anything about the possibility of reprising Han Solo in “Star Wars: Episode VII,” arriving in 2015, Ford answered in one word: “No.”
And what about the reported “Indiana Jones 5”? “I don’t know. I’m not so good at predictions but it would be something I would be ambitious to do if the script were right. And the circumstances.”