Jackie Robinson’s story is so blue-sky heroic and transcendent, it becomes hard for any filmmaker to run the bases without falling into emotional goo. (Tellingly, the first attempt, in 1950, starred Robinson himself and still felt like a fantasy.) 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. “Gentlemen, I have a plan,” intones visionary Brooklyn Dodgers exec Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, doing an awful lot of acting) in the first half hour, signing the bold shortstop (Chadwick Boseman) to his minor-league squad while warning him of the hell storm ahead. By movie’s end—the peak of Robinson’s 1947 rookie season—we’re pounding toward home plate in slo-mo like The Natural.
But before then, 42 settles into an absorbingly complex battle of wills, baseball’s pageant suffused with an ugly strain of racism, hooted from the stands and even the dugouts. One scene of prolonged hectoring—from disgraced Phillies coach Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk)—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. As in the best sports films, you also learn a lot about mechanics: Robinson’s aggressive style of play was itself seen as an affront, and there’s humor in Rickey’s sly managerial tactics. The style of the film, lush and traditional, is nothing special (that Jay-Z song in the trailer was a fake out), but the takeaway, a daily struggle for dignity, is impossibly moving.
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