Sports fans know that the most memorable victories are usually the grittiest. Uncontested victories are good for the ego, but they’re boring to watch. We want to see the sweat and blood it took our team to make it to the top.
“42,” the new biopic of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, is missing too much of that sweat and blood to be truly great. Director Brian Helgeland has packaged Robinson’s story as an inspirational highlight reel designed to be shown in high schools, complete with important lessons and suitably heartwarming moments. But the movie never gives you a real sense of what a messy, complicated thing is must have been to alter the course of history, ignoring potentially wrenching insight for simple aphorisms. It’s a well-meaning movie, but it leaves you with the nagging feeling that it left out the best part of the story.
The movie skips lightly through a couple of key years in Robinson’s life, starting with his time with the Negro-league team Kansas City Monarchs and ending during his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. This lets audiences see the whole arc of Robinson’s climb, but at the same time it shortchanges certain characters who are shoehorned in just to acknowledge the time period. We never get a real sense of either of the Dodger’s general managers, for example, since they get approximately 15 minutes of combined screen time.
The few players that are highlighted are suitably likeable, particularly Hamish Linkletter as the awkward but well-meaning Ralph Branca and Lucas Black as the hardworking and sweet PeeWee Reese. Both actors have a nicely heartwarming moment with star Chadwick Boseman about two-thirds of the way through the movie.
“42” does devote plenty of time to the horrifying racism Robinson faced, both the vitriolic bile of the few and the casual derision of the masses. Anyone with the slightest bit of social responsibility will cringe as they watch the movie’s simple, direct portrayal of what America was like. For that alone, the movie deserves the place it will likely earn in future high school classrooms.
But the same simplicity that makes it such a great lesson hurts “42” as a movie. Harrison Ford is entertainingly curmudgeonly as Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager who was first inspired to de-segregate major league baseball. But the fact that we never get to see him get that inspiration, or are even given a believable reason why he suddenly decided to defy the entirety of the baseball world up to that point, makes the character feel more like a poster than a real person.
As Robinson, relative unknown Boseman comes the closest to moving beyond the script. He imbues the baseball hero with a restless, unspoken anger, gracefully suggesting the internal struggle that the script barely has time for. He’s forced to spout the same aphorisms as the rest of the cast, but the expressions on his face during moments of silence suggest at something far richer.
And, occasionally, more joyous. The best moment in the movie is the first time we get to watch Boseman’s Robinson steal bases against the Brooklyn Dodgers during an exhibition game. The smirk on Robinson’s face is both defiant and delightfully wicked as he silently teases the racist pitcher, running the other man ragged with nothing more than speed and fearlessness.
Instead of a living legend or hero-in-the-making, I was finally seeing the man who refused to be stopped by anything. That was the story I wanted to hear.
Rated PG-13 for language, racism, and threats of violence.