Baseball season began about a month ago and with that, 42, a movie telling the story of one of the games greatest players. Chadwick Boseman stars as Jackie Robinson, the first player to break the colour barrier in major league baseball. Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie and Andre Holland also star in the film that examines the struggles Robinson went through to make the pros. Watch the trailer after the jump and then read my review.
Biopics are difficult films to make because creative changes can compromise the true story. I am a baseball fan, but not familiar with the Jackie Robinson story, but it felt like a believable story that I really enjoyed.
Brian Helgeland wrote and directed the film, a very different genre than his usual action fares. The story is good but has some flaws that left me confused on some things. For example, at one point it is implied that Robinson hit a walk-off home run, but his team is the visiting club and therefore their opponents would still have to bat.
On a different level, I felt they spent too much time leading up too the major league debut, especially considering that he shows so much of the first pro season. It seems like forever before he makes his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then he is there for almost an hour more. What I would have liked instead would have been more scenes in the Negro leagues. I don’t think it was as clear how different the Majors and the Negro leagues were, and think that could have been more interesting than the Montreal Monarchs minor league scenes.
Baseball in the 1940’s was a tough game to play. The players were crude, vile and all white. But Harrison Ford’s Branch Rickey wanted to change that. Rickey is almost as important to the story as Jackie himself, because he is the one who gave Robinson the chance to succeed.
And Ford becomes completely absorbed in the role. You can tell he really enjoyed playing a man as important to baseball as Rickey was. His classic fast tongue and smug face are out in full force, Ford trademarks for sure, but also probably the way Rickey would act. It’s good to see Han Solo and Indiana Jones getting himself roles like these. He is a star here, even if it is a slower paced film.
There are many strong character actors that appear in this film. John C. McGinley plays Red Barber and calls all of the Dodger games for radio. His colourful narration during big plays adds an entertaining element to the action on the field. Brett Cullen also appears as Clay Hooper, the manager of the Montreal Monarchs. It is interesting to see his transformation from being a racist to supporting Robinson, leading to a scene where he stands up for his star player. But it’s Alan Tudyk who steals the show as Phillies manager Ben Chapman. He gives a horrifying performance as a man who can’t stand Robinson and almost breaks him with a flurry of insults. All of these actors, even with small roles, add a lot to the film.
Andre Holland plays Wendell Smith, a sports journalists who befriends Robinson early in his career and acts as the narrator for the film. Holland performs the role well but doesn’t get very much screen time in the second half. His character disappears for long stretches of the film, without an explanation except that he is working. In the end, Smith just becomes another black character that is inspired by Robinson and their relationship is left on confusing terms.
Nicole Beharie played my favourite character, Jackie’s wife Rachel Robinson. She had a lot of fun with the role and is always smiling and laughing when her man makes the various white men look dumb. After having a baby halfway through the film, Rachel appears in less the film but she is always there for the big moments for an awesome facial expression that accurately captures the moment.
Chadwick Boseman, in his first starring role, takes on a baseball legend with mixed results. He studied Jackie’s play carefully and does really well in the baseball scenes, especially when stealing bases. But when he interacts with the people around him, Boseman doesn’t sell it too well. Rickey tells him to try and hide his emotions from the white men, but Boseman seemed to hide his energy instead. He gets a horse voice when angry and looks almost afraid when having intimate moments with Beharie. I’m sure this role will open many doors for Boseman, but there were flaws in the performance that took away from the quality of the film.
42 brings Jackie Robinson’s story to the screen for the sixth time, including one where Jackie played himself in 1950. It focus on his career while mentioning the civil rights movement but implying that Jackie didn’t really want to be a part of that. While it has it’s flaws, 42 is a good baseball movie and will likely become the definitive Jackie Robinson film. He changed professional sport forever and the film effectively captures that.