This weekend, 42: The True Story of an American Legend hits theaters just before Jackie Robinson Day. Robinson was the first African-American to break the baseball color line when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. The biopic by writer-director Brian Helgeland (who wrote the screenplay for L.A. Confidential) wisely focuses on the years 1945 to 1947: when Robinson went from the Negro Leagues to the Majors.
Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson, the ballplayer who struggled under the weight of immense racial prejudice from the bleachers to inside the dugout. Harrison Ford plays baseball executive Branch Rickey who signed Robinson to the Montreal Royals (the Dodgers Minor League affiliate) and, eventually, the famed Brooklyn Dodgers. Nicole Beharie plays Rachel Robinson, Jackie's wife. The film also stars Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland and Lucas Black. Here are five things 42 illuminated while taking us out to the ball game.
1. The Earnest Feel Is Just Right: The look of the film is pure old-fashioned Hollywood. Every scene is awash in the soft glow of nostalgia. The opening act felt a bit made-for-TV movie with the racial divide seemingly larger than life, but as we got to know Jackie and Rickey, moments started to gel. Some aspects that would normally be taken for granted—like Jackie's devout and loving relationship with Rachel—do the narrative a solid by stepping off the field to experience events through Rachel's eyes. As a woman living Southern California, she's pretty shocked to see a whites-only bathroom during their early travels, which goes a long way to convey her predicament with today's viewers.
2. Offensive Characters Are Real and Necessary: As manager of the rival Philadelphia Phillies, the usually lovable, big-grinned Alan Tudyk completely leaves his Suburgatory comfort zone. Audiences will be stunned as he mercilessly taunts Jackie at bat. The minutes feel like hours with endless use of horrible racial epithets. Like Leonardo DiCaprio was as the charismatic but detestable slave owner in Django Unchained, Tudyk grounds the jerk of a man as someone who might not be relatable, but feels completely real.
3. The Big Game Thrills: Once he's on the diamond, you'll see why Robinson was much more than a symbol. As he darts back and forth between first and second, his feeling to steal base is infectious. Go, Jackie, go! Each stare down between pitcher and Robinson is a feat of tight-acting tension. Never has the allusion of being a marked target been so palpable. Yet the crack of the bat and the hoped for home run makes it all worth it.
4. Cranky Ford Beats Indiana Jones: Ford has been largely absent from the multiplex in recent years. Unlike, the younger Liam Neeson or Bruce Willis, he hasn't left much of a mark in action films of late. Ford's gruffness works much better in roles like Morning Glory where he played a veteran reporter to Rachel McAdams' newbie. As Branch Rickey that grizzled, gnarly voice is perfection. He's the man who must convince Robinson that he has be strong enough to not fight back or retaliate at the abuse he'll entail as the first African-American to break the baseball's color barrier. As his colleague Harold (T.R. Knight) observes, unwritten rules can be worse to overcome than actual laws. Ford imbues Rickey with the persona to be the guy that can fight whenever he darn well pleases.
5. The Heart of 42: When he takes the field for the first time, Robinson is pretty isolated: from his teammates as well as the rest of baseball's collective. The journey to becoming the legend is hard fought. Countless sports flicks rely on the trope of the team beginning to trust each other on and off the field. (Just in time for the big game!) Here, Lucas Black and a small number of players end up backing Robinson up. A gentle supportive gesture like an arm on his shoulder goes the distance. That number, so isolated in '47 would become the first to be permanently retired in 1997.
Except once a year, on April 15, when every Major League baseball player sports a 42 jersey.
Do you have love of the game? Or are you just interested in seeing a big-screen telling of the Jackie Robinson story? Sound off in the comments!