42 is a powerful and feel-good account of the first black player to join the Major Leagues.
As a long-time fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, I cannot help but be proud of the team's heritage. Among the best of these boasts is the story of first baseman Jackie Robinson, whose historic signing by executive Branch Rickey in 1947 lead to a smashing of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. And while several movies have tried to tell Robinson's story (including one starring the athlete himself), none have come as close as this week's release of 42, a spirited and uplifting surprise in every way.
As World War II ends and baseball's heroes return from active duty to renew the National Pastime, Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, Blade Runner) makes a monumental decision: it is time to bring the first black player into the league. Although blacks served and died in the war, respect in peacetime has been to find, with things looking more like post-Civil War America than anything equal. Caught up in this ongoing tumult is the ballplayer Jackie Robinson (TV actor Chadwick Boseman), who's been stuck playing in the International League with the Kansas City Monarchs. Before signing Robinson, Rickey warns the hotshot of the coming storm, only to see Robinson respond by stealing home on his first at-bat with the farm-team Montreal Royals. But it's not all good times for Robinson, as news spreads among whites of his impending arrival in New York. Greeted by boos from the whites and cheers from the black crowds, he's forced to endure everything from petitions by his own team members demanding his removal, to dozens of death threats. As he and newly-wed wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie, American Violet) brave the city of Philadelphia and the chance to make the playoffs, the two must stick together as Rickey tries to protect his rising star from ball beanings and taunting from that city's racist manager.
The script by Writer/Director Brian Helgeland is well-built and compact, keeping the heroics and long-winded speeches about Robinson's accomplishments at a minimum. Known mostly for his L.A. Confidential script, Helgeland effectively re-creates the world of 1940's America, giving us the beautiful side (some terrific CGI reconstructions of Ebbets Field) and the ugly stuff, too. It's not a pretty picture, but Helgeland keeps the script moving by mixing in some comedy between those tense scenes (of which there's many), such as Rickey's phone conversations with Dodger manager and playboy Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni, TV's Law and Order).
42 is about overcoming racism - more like a battle of wills between the old America and the new - and so it's important to note that Helgeland does drop the 'N' word quite often, especially as it seems to pour out of the mouth of Phillies Manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk, Serenity). Be prepared for this, especially if you plan on taking young kids to see it, which I do recommend. Some might claim that the seemingly constant use of the word wasn't necessary - I say it's a part of baseball's sometimes uncomfortable past and was completely appropriate to show.
Helgeland's cast expertly handles this challenging script by delving into the time period and immersing themselves and us in the controversy that I'm sure must have been swirling around Robinson at the time. Harrison Ford, rightfully criticized during the past 20 years for mailing in one stiff performance after another, shines here as Branch Rickey - he's got the gruff exterior and kind heart down, portraying Rickey as Robinson's protector and baseball's lightning rod. He steals many scenes he's in, and delivers some of the best comedic lines in the film. But it's always been Ford's presence and gravitas that's made him so likeable, and he delivers just like it was 1981 and Indiana Jones all over again.
And much like 2011's Cowboys and Aliens, Ford isn't the best thing about 42, but he's darn close. The credit for that prize is clearly earned by Bozeman, who's bold but never obnoxious and strong without being rude. You can feel his inner rage as he tries single-handedly to represent all the hopes of African Americans with each swing and stolen base. Watch out for Bozeman, whose splash here makes him ready for instant stardom. The supporting cast is also excellent, including Beharie, John C. McGinley as a hilarious Red Barber, and Meloni who exudes the perfect New York attitude in Durocher.
As the credits began to roll, I noticed a loud cheer erupt from the audience, something which I neither expected, nor have I heard since The Avengers. That's a powerful stamp of approval for 42, a surprising hit that I hope endures throughout the summer. It's rated PG-13, has a runtime of 128 minutes, and comes highly recommended.
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