It’s a baseball story and a human condition story. It’s a monumental race relations story. It’s both a true story and one of mythological magnitude. It’s an American story. It’s a universal story.
It’s also a love story.
Tall task for a film to accomplish all of that in two hours.
42, written and directed by Brian Helgeland, is up to the task. Thank God.
Like Gary Ross’ excellent Seabiscuit, Helgeland’s script wisely opens with narration set to actual photo imagery laying out for the audience the time and place in which the post World War II story is set.
But then comes the two biggest litmus tests for 42.
Ford’s first two pivotal scenes in which Rickey selects and then enlists Robinson erased any doubt. His performance is excellent. I bought every word.
Second, and more daunting, could the actor cast to play Jack Roosevelt Robinson not only bring the man to life, but make the baseball action believable?
Yes to both. Unknown Chadwick Boseman is outstanding. He’s clearly an athlete; and as likable a young actor as you will find today.
Is it a great “sports movie?” I wouldn’t go that far. And I will definitely not go so far as saying here that it’s my favorite baseball movie – The Natural still holds that distinction – although 42 does manage to capture a similar vintage color palate and texture to Barry Levinson’s classic.
The baseball scenes are solid. The look and feel of the old stadiums is spot on. The banter between players is good enough, but no great shakes. No revelations.
42 is really a collection of very thoughtful, well-executed moments that string together to create a cinematic feeling of pride and resolve.
The early moment in the picture, before Jackie has even told his girlfriend, Rachel (Juliard grad Nicole Beharie), about his new baseball assignment, when he asks for her hand in marriage. The look of surprised elation on her face as she stammers back in to the phone “Absolutely” brought a tear to my eye.
Then there’s the moment when Jackie stands in the paternity ward at the hospital after the birth of their first child and tells his infant son that he will be with him “until the day I die.” Apparently, Jackie’s father walked out on him and his mother when he was only six months old. This kind of adversity can propel some to greatness, but there is a recognition in this script that having a loving, married mother and father is a beautiful beginning – and one to be celebrated.
How about when Jackie first walks in to the Dodger clubhouse to join the major league club, the trainer apologizes to him for not having a locker for him. He walks the new player through the hostile sanctuary to his jersey which hangs on the wall in the corner – waiting for him. Jackie delicately clutches it, turning it around to reveal the number “42.”
Even one of the film’s mantle piece scenes transcends its own weight.
After Jackie endures a harsh litany of verbal abuse from Phillies’ manager, Ben Chapman, (Alan Tudyk), he escapes to the confines of the tunnel and smashes his bat to splinters. It’s our one prolonged glimpse at the bottled up rage he was asked to swallow as the first black player in the bigs. He’s then approached by Rickey who proceeds to calm down his barrier-busting star, telling him “Everybody needs you – you’re medicine.”
There are also several moments in the film when Christian faith is not only referenced but held up as a guiding principle that binds both men. Rickey and Robinson. Owner and player.
“Like our Saviour, you have to have the guts to turn the other cheek,” challenges Rickey in one of his many Biblical references.
At one point, Robinson assures his worried wife not to worry about the slings and arrows, “God built me to last.”
These are words not commonly heard in major Hollywood films. Kudos to Helgeland for highlighting and honoring the importance of the Scripture in both men’s lives.
Finally, I am reminded of what I have been hearing from Hall of Fame Dodger play-by-play announcer Vin Scully for years whenever the topic of Jackie Robinson is discussed.
Scully is always quick to acknowledge that Jackie the man was nothing without Rachel, his wife.
42 found two wonderful actors to bring this romance to life.
There is not a moment in the film when these two are on screen that doesn’t sparkle with love and affection.
No major fireworks. No lengthy debates or arguments over the challenges of his new trail blazing career. No pandering to what we already can imagine were the difficulties of the racial obstacles and societal injustices.
Just a handful of sweet, affectionate exchanges that so gracefully connect us to their mutual admiration and respect.
Their trust and support.
Jackie and Rachel Robinson gave marriage a very good name.
42 has given us a much-needed reminder of the power of faith – and love – and togetherness.
This is a beautiful film.
I’m confident Oscar will agree.