The race-redefining rise of Jackie Robinson from the Negro Leagues to the long-segregated majors is the best American sports story ever.
So I wish I could report that the new movie “42” is among the greatest sports movies ever.
Oh, it’s not a bust. Newcomer Chadwick Boseman gives a star-making performance as the young Jackie and the picture establishes an authentic sense of time and place. It shows all the racist b.s. Robinson had to put up with as the first black man to play in Major League Baseball.
It’s just that this effort from writer/director Brian Helgeland (whose resume runs from penning the screenplay for “L.A. Confidential” to directing the brutal noir thriller “Payback”) is is generally effective but rarely inspired. It’s so sincere and straightforward that artistry hardly figures into the equation.
Helgeland clearly wanted his movie to bring Robinson’s story to a younger generation that most likely never heard of the Dodgers’ No. 42. He hasn’t dumbed things down, exactly, but it’s a conservative approach — more a teaching moment than a fully-committed cinematic immersion.
The movie does a good job of delivering the sailiant points of the Jackie Robinson legend, but overall it’s a cautious movie, one that goes out of its way to be nonthreatening, to hold the young viewers’ hands, to guide them through a world they are ignorant of or have avoided learning about.
The film boils down to a conspiracy between two men.
First there’s Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, here adopting an effective form of subdued bombast). The crusty general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers suggests that having a black man on his team could be a monetary windfall. For every outraged white fan who stays away, he says, there will be two new black fans whose dollars are just as green.
Of course Rickey’s motives are more than pecuniary, as we eventually learn (“There’s something unfair at the heart of the game I love”). But he’s a sly old dog who knows that by making the world think it’s all about money he can avoid talking about the moral implications of his radical move … at least until America has gotten used to the idea.
And then there’s Jack Robinson, a young player with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. The kid can hit, he can run, he can field … and he’s shown he has a temper. Rickey wants a man with guts … “the guts to turn the other cheek.”
The film follows Robinson’s rise through the Dodgers’ farm club to a spot on the Brooklyn Bums’ starting lineup. Jackie takes strength from his marriage to Rachel (Nicole Beharie). He is shunned by some of his white teammates and gradually accepted by others.
That’s the tension inherent in “42”: Jackie Robinson must endure all kinds of abuse and isolation without striking back. He wins only if he can take it with grace and dignity.
Much of the film’s pleasures can be found in the supporting performances. Christopher Meloni steals his scenes as manager Leo Durocher, who gets banned from baseball because he’s sleeping with a married actress (Leo thinks he got the good end of the deal). British actor Alan Tudyk is marvelously hateful as Phillies manager Ben Chapman, notorious for hurling virulent racist rants every time Robinson approached the plate.
Helgeland dishes a few clunky moments. At one point a black child in the stands turns his face skyward and prays, “Please, God, let Jackie show what we can do.” And most scenes are underscored by ersatz Aaron Copland — soaring strings and sonorous brass hellbent on inspiring us.
Andre Holland is fine as sportswriter Wendell Smith, who covers Robinson’s career from a seat behind third base because blacks aren’t allowed in the press box. John C. McGinley is a deadpan delight as sports broadcaster Red Barber. And Lucas Black has a magnificent moment as the Kentucky-born shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who during a low moment throws his arm around the shoulder of his black teammate, a public gesture of brotherhood and solidarity based on an actual incident. (If that doesn’t get to you, very little will.)
The film’s quiet heart lies with Boseman’s Jackie. This young actor (whose resume up to now has been filled almost exclusively with appearances on episodic TV) does something remarkable … he makes heroic the will to not fight back. It’s counterintuitive (moviegoers expect retaliation) but hugely effective, building a tension that is released not with fists but with the crack of a bat driving a ball over the center field fence.