"He's a Methodist... I'm a Methodist... God's a Methodist. We can't go wrong."
42 is anything but an unconventional film, so the choice of Helgeland as writer & director certainly didn't pay off in that regard. If anything, 42 is as by-the-numbers, man overcoming adversity, filmmaking 101 as it gets. That doesn't mean it's a bad film, it's just not the barrier-shattering film that befits a man such as Robinson. The film essentially spans two years: 1946, when Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides he wants to be the man whose team is the first to sign a black man to play for them, and 1947, when Robinson finally makes it from Triple-A affiliate Montreal to Brooklyn and leads his team to the NL Pennant.
Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson, and is an actor I had never laid eyes on before this film. We first glimpse Robinson as a scrappy playmaker, playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues in late 1945. When Rickey decides he wants a player from the Negro Leagues to sign a deal to play for his franchise, he hones in on Robinson, making him an offer to play with Montreal. Robinson faces resistance, both from people within the organization and from a plethora of racist outsiders, finding their perceived way of life challenged.
Robinson proves himself to be a difference maker during the 1946 season with Montreal, and Rickey tells Brooklyn's manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) to prepare for Robinson to play with the Dodgers in 1947. The film then hits all the highlights, from his first plate appearance, to his teammates having to deal with all of the newfound pressure that comes from having a black player on their roster. But through it all, the film never loses focus on Jackie's own struggles, and those of his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie).
The first thing I have to say is that as a baseball lover, any film about baseball has to be a real stinker for me not to like it. I'm constantly reminded of Brad Pitt's line in Moneyball, "how can you not get romantic about baseball?" It's shocking to me that some 66 years after Robinson broke the color barrier, that there hasn't been a major motion picture about him, and that when we finally do get one, it's sort of middle of the road. It's not a terrible film, and I would be shocked if it didn't truly speak to people of color and give them a hero in Jackie Robinson that they could then aspire to, but for someone who achieved something so momentous, I would have expected a more daring film that tried something more than just a paint-by-numbers formula.
The film is most assuredly guilty of a whitewash on a lot of the issues within the film, namely Branch Rickey's real reasons for signing Robinson. I would love to think that his intentions were as noble as Helgeland presents them, but historians have pointed to the fact that it was more than likely a business decision than anything else, but I don't want to totally discredit the gesture in and of itself. It's also a lot easier to depict Robinson's various teammates accepting him one by one, slowly throughout the season, as it adds more drama, but it's highly unlikely that things would have actually worked this way in real life.
That being said, I'm glad that the film didn't shy away from the nastier elements involved with Robinson's signing, namely the racism that would have by and large ruled those days. Alan Tudyk as Phillies skipper Ben Chapman single handedly drops enough n-bombs to make Quentin Tarantino proud, but I was surprised by how prevalent the word was throughout the film, particularly in a PG-13 production.
The cast, for the most part, was very good, particularly Boseman & Beharie. They brought a real passion to their relationship, and Boseman carried himself with the elegance of a golden age Hollywood leading man. Beharie was especially good in the bulk of her scenes, putting her solidly on my radar for the future. Ford was fine, if a bit much, as Rickey. Ford has never really been much of a character actor, so to see him trying so hard was distracting, but he's not bad. Meloni is great as Durocher, as is Lucas Black as PeeWee Reese & Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, getting the biggest laugh in the entire film with his talk with Robinson about the showers.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention John McGinley's work as Dodgers play-by-play man Red Barber. McGinley is a uniquely gifted actor, and I love seeing him lose himself in roles like this one. My biggest complaint of the film was with Andre Holland's character Wendell Smith. I didn't think that Holland did a bad job, but this character functioned as such a plot device, I was embarrassed for him in a lot of his scenes. He goes right up to the precipice of being a "magical negro" character, but never goes over the cliff. While he certainly existed in real life and had a relationship with Robinson similar to what was depicted here, he spoke almost solely in quips and quotes.
As I said earlier, 42 is not a bad film. It will play well to baseball fans and history fans alike, but will likely play best to young people who will look to Robinson's actions & sacrifices as inspirational. It's a bit oversimplified and overwrought, but it's well-made and well-acted. I would hope that when the time comes to create another inspirational baseball biopic (like the inevitable Roberto Clemente one), the filmmakers will take these lessons to heart and try something that's not so conventional. But as it stands, 42 could have been a whole lot worse, and thank goodness it wasn't.