In telling chapters of history, films have the benefit of hindsight. As obvious as that statement sounds, Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland takes advantage of almost 70 years of history in writing/directing “42,” to the point where he can set the stage with the perfect emotional tone for telling the story of Jackie Robinson, one of the greatest legends in all of sports, who broke baseball’s color barrier in the 1940s.
“You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) asks of Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the man who dared to put him in a Major League uniform. “No, I want a player who has the guts not to fight back,” Rickey says. The exchange is music to our ears, but did it ever happen? Probably not quite like that. You can pull lots of dialogue from “42” and make the same argument, but it doesn’t matter; Helgeland is telling the folk story of Robinson and that’s the story we want to see anyway.
The film opens with Rickey, a shockingly refreshing change of pace for Ford, who never played a non-fiction character in his life, endeavoring to bring in a player from the Negro Leagues. The reason? None given at first, but no matter. Today, it wouldn’t be surprising for one person to take a stand on a matter of civil rights, but back then, it was probably hard, assuming Rickey had a care about civil rights. The film hints that he just wanted to win and make money, but it goes on to paint him as an ethical hero too, because — just because. And why not? We want to believe that’s the man Rickey was, and his character is totally lovable for it.
“42” doesn’t sugarcoat the discrimination Robinson and other African-Americans faced during this historic time, but we still lap it up. The most memorable instance is when Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) shouts slur after slur at Robinson over the course of a game and ultimately makes amends with him as a publicity move. Harsh, brutal and tough to stomach, this discrimination makes us feel for Robinson when he heads into the clubhouse and unleashes his anger because he couldn’t do it on the field. How hard it was back then and how terrible people could be, but the movie presents it in this “my, look what he had to overcome!” sort of way. Helgeland stirs up our emotional response, even though the reality was probably much uglier.
A perfect example is during one of Robinson’s first few big league games presented in the film when a man takes his boy to the ballgame and they look like they’re having a great time, until the father shouts slurs at Robinson when he enters the field. The kid, who clearly didn’t feel negatively about Robinson to being with, joins in the heckling because that’s what the other men were doing. Engrained racism doesn’t need to be showed in such a picturesque light, but it adds to the emotional experience of the film.
Boseman’s Robinson is both humble and bold. We see him hold back and keep his temper in check and we also see him instigating by showing off his athletic prowess. Boseman makes Robinson every inch as lovable as we imagine the man to have been. He’s unafraid to bring on some extra heat, but like most of us, he has a breaking point. Surprisingly, we don’t see that breaking point much; the script doesn’t care much for that kind of melodrama, just the feel- good kind.
“42” embodies everything you’d want from a feel-good movie. Helgeland perfectly sets up bad characters or characters with bad attitudes to get served with witty civil rights-affirming dialogue or scenes in which they have to eat crow (or — yes, I’ll go there — Jim Crow). The film definitely panders to the obvious inclinations of its audience, who so many decades removed, very clearly stands on the right side of history. I won’t be so naive as to believe that everyone who sees “42” has no racial prejudice, but what Robinson stood for and how what he did changed society let alone sports has few opposers these days.
In reality, Robinson was and is a hero, but in the minds of a generations removed, he’s a legend. The film honors the legend of Robinson in a way that it will feed whatever idealistic notion of Robinson you might have developed in your mind. “42” is the comfort food of sports drama, which is the comfort genre of cinema. In other words, it’s any food item analogy you wish with lots and lots of butter. But there’s butter for the sake of butter, and there’s butter applied in perfect, mouth-watering amounts, and “42” has the proportions measured out just right.
Written and Directed by Brian Helgeland
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford,