Written & Directed by Brian Helgeland
Baseball is America’s Pastime, which is to say it’s a fun way to pass the time, no more than a game. It would be great if this were true, and for the most part it is true. Children from all ages get to go out there during the summer months and run around playing a game with a bat and a ball. I can personally testify to just how much fun the game of baseball is to play. To this day I still play the game, and while my talents may have diminished as my body grows older and the aches and pains don’t go away right away, I still have tons of fun playing the game I love. However, baseball is not just a fun game. It is that, but Jackie Robinson made it more than that. Jackie Robinson transcended the sport to make it more than America’s Pastime. Jackie Robinson is an American icon, a man more important than just a children’s game.
The story is well known, especially if you are a baseball fan. Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) was just a young second baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs when Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decided he wanted to turn the sports world, and American news world, on its head by integrating America’s game with black players, something which had not yet been done due to an “unwritten rule” which made baseball a white game. Of course, racism was very much alive in 1947 when Robinson and Rickey broke the color line in baseball. The character presented by Robinson as the kind of man strong and courageous enough to NOT fight back when taunted and cursed and called all sorts of names by not just fans, not just opposing players and managers, but even players on his own team is what makes Jackie Robinson an American hero, not just as baseball hero. It certainly helped that he was a hell of a ball player too.
As the third Jackie Robinson movie in this baseball marathon, 42 stands out as different from both The Jackie Robinson Story and Soul of the Game. Where The Jackie Robinson Story starred Jackie himself and felt more like a celebratory documentary, 42 stands as a more dramatic interpretation of events. Where Soul of the Game told the story of Jackie through the disappointment of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, 42 focuses solely on Jackie and his incredible ability and upstanding character. Rickey and Robinson were the perfect pair to make the history they made, they featured the right makeup to endure the criticism. There is a tremendous scene in this film between the two when Jackie asks Rickey why he wanted to integrate baseball, why him? Rickey replies because he saw that there was something at the core of the game he loved which was unfair. The two were made for this moment.
The actors both give good performances as well, Ford and Boseman. Ford in particular I feels really embodied the spirit and attitude of Rickey, while accurately mimicking his mannerisms, something about his performance which drew the ire of some upon the film’s initial release, despite it being pretty accurate. Boseman’s performance doesn’t hold up as well I remember it, but it is still an impressive turn. I cannot imagine taking on such a role would be an easy task, as so much pressure resides on the shoulders of an actor playing an icon, legend and hero. Overall, the film is well acted. It’s a glossy film, which revels in its period. It does nothing outstanding, has no higher ambition than to simply communicate the incredible true story of Jackie Robinson, but it doesn’t need to reach higher, as Jackie’s story is compelling enough on its own.
Where 42 succeeds so much is its ability to craft these moments which make us proud to be Americans. Ashamed that such racism ever existed, yes, but proud that this battle was finally won and baseball players can play on equal footing. Moments like Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie in Cincinnati, or when Jackie beats the brutally offensive Phillies manager Ben Chapman by beating his team on the field. Jackie Robinson paved the way for a lot of social change in American society, not just on the baseball diamond. Baseball was the American sport back then, and carried a lot of weight with fans of the game. Seeing this film makes you romantic again about the game, happy, proud. It’s inspirational and a little cheesy, but only as cheesy as a film about a monumental social story in the 20th century can be. It’s the good kind.