'42': A solid hit
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
To be perfectly frank, I myself wish he had gotten a better feature film than the well-intentioned "42." Not that "42" is bad -- the movie does get the job done, after a fashion. But let's get real. The inspired and iconoclastic filmmaker Spike Lee had tried to get a Jackie Robinson movie done for years. Nothing against Chadwick Boseman, the impressive, charismatic young actor who plays Robinson, or Andre Holland, who plays Wendell Smith, the journalist who describes himself as Robinson's appointed Boswell. They're both great. But every now and then I'd look at them and envision Denzel Washington and Giancarlo Esposito circa 1990 and I'd think, "Damn."
This Robinson story, written and directed by the capable but far more foursquare Brian Helgeland, focuses not just on Robinson, but on the older white establishment male who brought him into the big leagues, the devoutly religious, saltily eccentric Branch Rickey, who was the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The movie opens with him announcing his plans to desegregate his team, gradually, to some of his officers. "With all due respect, sir, have you lost your mind?" one of them responds. Cut to Rickey, whom Harrison Ford plays with an avuncular twinkle in the eye that sometimes recalls that of, no kidding, Ronald Reagan. And the camera dollies in on the character, the slow movement intended to ennoble him, and if you aren't getting the message, Mark Isham's scores quietly lays on the Aaron Copland lite, and Ford/Rickey starts delivering some dialogue that, like so much of the dialogue in the early part of the picture, starts sounding like a speech about seven words in. So the player he's suggesting, this Robinson, refused to sit at the back of a military bus? That's the quality that makes him the player Rickey wants! "If he were white, you would call that spirit!" Right!
Once an initially befuddled Robinson learns of Rickey's scheme, he marries his girlfriend, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), and they begin to experience racial humiliations right off the bat, starting with getting kicked off a plane to Florida. A familiar pattern of upsetting scenes emerges, but as this is a feel-good movie, the initial hateful racism of passing characters (and some not passing: There's not-inconsiderable discontent at first among Robinson's Dodger teammates) begins to be replaced by a grudging respect. Christopher Meloni, as tough-minded Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, puts a spring in the movie's step, as does Max Gail, who plays his replacement after a scandal sees Durocher made the victim of another kind of prejudice. And after a stiff start, Ford really settles into his role as Rickey and makes the character a delight. Boseman is splendid at both an emotional and physical level. As the movie goes on, that means more and more, as does the excellent period production detail, and the meticulous, involving scenes of baseball action, which include plenty of depictions of Robinson's pitcher-discombobulating base-stealing style. So what I had feared was going to be a well hit ball that lands foul wound up at least a solid double after all.. Your feelings about corn in baseball movies may cause you to call it differently.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.