Jackie Robinson became the first black Major League baseball player in 1947 – wearing jersey number 42. His story is so heroic it becomes hard for any filmmaker to run the bases without falling into emotional goo. Writer-director Brian Helgeland has somehow found a way to do it, cleanly and intelligently, by sandwiching his movie between soft slices of sentiment, but leaving room for a meaty interior that surprises with its rawness.
An ugly strain of racism is hooted from the stands and even the dugouts. One scene of prolonged hectoring is breathtaking for a studio movie; Helgeland cuts to an innocent child echoing the worst habits of his dad. Robinson had to quietly win over his own teammates, not all of whom saw an opportunity for nobility. In ‘42’, as in the best sports films, you also learn a lot about mechanics: Robinson’s aggressive technique was itself seen as an affront. The style of the film – lush and traditional – is nothing special, but the takeaway, a daily struggle for dignity, is impossibly moving.