Review: Jackie Robinson biopic ’42’ cut from familiar and cheesy Hollywood formula

We have become a baseball family.

When you have kids, you end up building a fair amount of your schedule around the various interests that they pursue, and baseball has become a major part of Toshi’s life each year. He’s a natural, and we’ve tried other sports before settling on baseball. The football parents were a nightmare, the basketball league was a mess, and tae kwon do mainly just made Toshi cry. But the little league that we found in our area is outstanding, well-organized, well-managed, and the kids and the parents that we’ve met as a result of being part of baseball have been an amazing addition to our lives.

One of the things that I find most enjoyable about the league is the inclusiveness. There are girls on their team, and every ethnic and cultural background seems very well-represented, and the kids don’t seem to notice because that’s simply how their world looks. That’s what they were born into, that’s normal to them, and the reason it’s remarkable to me is because I know that’s not what it looked like when I was younger. I was a kid of the ’70s, and I thought of my childhood as a particularly permissive time. By the point I was aware of things, there was a rough hewn push towards equality. It may not have been perfectly executed, and if you look at a film like the original “Bad News Bears,” much of the cultural attitude at that moment was defined by the frictions that still existed and the desire to move past them.

That conversation was thirty years after the events depicted in “42,” and while Jackie Robinson is an emblematic figure in the history of how we’ve handled race in American culture, he was not the very beginning of everything. There were a lot of people who struggled and paid before him, and a lot of people who struggled and paid after him. He was significant because he was made significant by the media, and by the very shrewd Branch Rickey, the GM and President of the Dodgers. He knew what he was doing when he decided to start taking the steps that would eventually lead to Jackie Robinson taking the field as a full-fledged uniformed member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It wasn’t something they just did a day after they had the idea. It was not a foregone conclusion. And “42,” written and directed by Brian Helgeland, is an old-fashioned cornball myth-making Hollywood biopic that covers the period from Rickey having the concrete idea and seeing Jackie play to his successful integration into the team. When I sit in the stands watching the demographic marvel that is my son’s Little League, that is only possible because of the story that is told in part by “42.”

The film stars Chadwick Boseman as Jackie, and he’s a charismatic lead, hampered by the film’s conception of Jackie as a perfect human being. I get it, and there are plenty of other biopics that make this same mistake, sanding off the rough edges so that we’re left with someone inarguable. The film makes it look like Branch Rickey found a saint who played the best baseball in history and he made the easy decision to hire him to play the game. I’m sure part of that is because Jackie’s widow Rachel is still alive, and she was involved. Besides, Jackie Robinson is an easy person to idolize. He was on the right side of a terrifically moral conversation, and he was a gifted player, and the film gets that right. To some degree, the very blatantly corny way the film tells its story feels appropriate. There’s a trailer for the movie cut to modern hip-hop, and I’m glad to see that the film is nothing like that. It’s a classically-styled Hollywood version of the story, and considering how many films there are dedicated to the heroes of the canon of White America, I’m just fine with seeing Hollywood give an equally burnished treatment to a hero like Robinson.

Boseman does a nice job, and I’d love to see him in something where he’s given a lead with some rough edges on him. His best moments in the film are also Helgeland’s best moments, and they are the ones where the message of the film finally takes a back seat. When Jackie’s on the field and playing, Boseman does a great job of showing the joy that takes over, the natural sense of play that makes him a great baseball player. In particular, I love the way they show his ability to use base stealing to get into the heads of pitchers. It’s one of those moments where it’s not just “generic sports biography,” and there aren’t enough of those moments in the film. For the most part, the film’s approach to showing the forces of history at work is blunt, and the best example of that is an extended sequence featuring Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman, who is apparently the most blatant and unapologetic racist in the history of the world. In some ways, this feels like it’s meant for younger audiences who are being introduced not only to Robinson, but to the entire history of civil rights in the US. The way they illustrate the everyday indignities facing black Americans in the mid-40s is as a sort of checklist. Whites only bathroom? Someone treating the Robinsons badly and them being powerless to do anything about it? Hotels refusing them service? Other players using racially charged language to get in Jackie’s head on the field? Someone who starts racist having an awakening and making a public change of heart? All of these are obviously important moments to capture and impart to audiences, but there is a gracelessness to the way Helgeland does it that makes it feel like it’s more for young viewers than adults.

I think Lucas Black gives a great performance as Pee Wee Reese, and he has become one of the most reliably likable actors working. Christopher Meloni is very good as Leo Durocher, and Nichole Beharie plays Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, with a fierce sense of passion and an admirable refusal to be riled by anything. She has great chemistry with Boseman. By far, the most crucial supporting performance is Harrison Ford’s work as Branch Dickey. He does not often transform himself as much as he tries to do here, and it’s interesting to hear him do the voice and he’s certainly made a pretty big physical choice. He is the force that keeps driving the film forward, the one who is pushing to get Jackie onto the field, and late in the film, Ford plays a great beat as he explains his motive, and it’s a reminder of how good Ford can be when someone asks him to do something new, something that engages him fully. Of course, he can only be as good as the material, and Helgeland’s on-the-nose writing hamstrings the interesting choices that Ford is making.

If you want to see a completely by-the-numbers Hollywood biopic that indulges a sort of surface-level myth-making, “42” is that film, and I suspect that’s exactly the film they set out to make. There are so many fascinating things about the real-life figure that are left unsaid by this film, but what they do choose to tell, they tell with a totally unrealistic “movie movie” sensibility that may ultimately serve to make Jackie Robinson the hero to young viewers that he certainly should be.

“42” opens in theaters everywhere today.