At a pivotal moment in the new Jackie Robinson biopic 42, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) tries to console Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who’s furious over the abuse and humiliation he’s required to stoic-ally endure as the first black player in major-league baseball. “You’re medicine, Jack,” Rickey solemnly intones, trying to impress upon the player his position as someone who can facilitate the cure for a great societal ill. But within the context of the film, it starts to mean something slightly different.
The cinematic biopic has often felt chained to convention in its tone and rhythms, as hilariously emphasized in the genre parody Walk Hard. Make the subject of that biopic a figure as revered as Jackie Robinson—and the background context one as potentially discomfiting as institutional racism—and you’ve got the ingredients for something even less inclined to take risks. Writer/director Brian Helgeland (Payback) earnestly serves up a landmark historical moment by the spoonful, so that there’s never any room for doubt that this medicine is good for us.
That’s unfortunately evident from the outset, as sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland)—who would become Robinson’s friend—narrates a prologue reminding us that even after African-Americans served honorably in World War II did you realize there was still racism in America circa 1945? Branch Rickey certainly realizes it, even as he begins scouting through the Negro Leagues for a player he can ultimately bring up to the Dodgers and break the color barrier. He settles on Robinson, a gifted but proud 26-year-old who is invited to spring training in Florida in 1946, facing skepticism and hostility in the minor leagues before he’ll even get a shot at the big time in 1947.
Through the first hour, at least, there’s the promise of an unconventionally entertaining approach to Robinson’s saga. Ford plays Rickey as an appealing combination of savvy businessman and Bible-quoting moral crusader, unwavering in his commitment to his radical idea. There’s even more compelling material in Robinson himself, well played by Boseman as a firebrand with a low threshold for being pushed around. A terrific sequence in an early spring-training game finds Robinson getting into the head of an antagonistic Dodgers pitcher, stealing his way around the bases in an enthusiastic display of confidence in his own ability. Would 42 be prepared to show Robinson’s joy for the game beaten to death by a trailblazing role that requires him to play the perfect nonthreatening gentleman?
But there’s almost no time devoted to understanding the arc of how this experience affects Robinson as a player and as a man. Instead, Helgeland begins to structure 42 as a string of teachable moments and homilies. Dodgers players prepare a petition refusing to play with Robinson, and manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) responds with an angry lecture; the Philadelphia Phillies’ owner threatens to refuse to have his team take the field against Robinson and the Dodgers, and Rickey lectures him on standing before God’s judgment; Kentucky-born Dodgers star Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) worries about receiving threatening letters before a series in Cincinnati, and decides on an unusual public show of support for Robinson. At every available opportunity, 42 makes sure we understand it’s about righteous people standing up righteously and doing the righteous thing, often while batting righteous-handed.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about a film like 42 is how comfortable it wants to make a mainstream audience feel about the lines between the good guys and the bad guys. The representatives for the racist opposition faced by Robinson are generally painted in the most buffoonish terms, most notably Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), who chatters a nonstop stream of slurs. There’s a hint of something more complicated in the scene where a young boy begins parroting his father’s shouts of the “N-word,” then finds himself confused by seeing his hero Reese embrace Robinson. Yet that level of complexity is generally buried beneath the speeches and hagiography. With all the potential for finding new angles in a story so many people think they already know, Helgeland chooses instead simply to give audiences the stuff he thinks is good for them—all while assuring them that of course they’re not the ones who actually need any medicine at all.
Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie