Tackling a figure of the significance of Jackie Robinson and turn it into a two-hour movie is a task few filmmakers are well equipped to attempt. Brian Helgeland is not one of them. Better known as screenwriter than a director (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, Robin Hood), Helgeland chooses a more traditional route to tell the story of the first African-American to join the Major League Baseball. The outcome is stiff at best, although Robinson’s story has enough oomph to make us forget the film shortcomings.
At least Helgeland is smart enough to focus on a single year of Jackie’s career as opposed to his entire life: 1947, his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Thanks to the stubbornness of the team’s general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, chomping a cigar furiously), Jackie Robinson joins the MLB to the stupor of most players and audiences. Jackie “has the goods”, but his main asset is stoicism. Robinson must endure open hostility wherever he goes, including his own team’s locker room.
As good as relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman is, he is given little to work with. We don’t see a character, but a single-note icon. As played by Boseman, Jackie has two frames of mind: Endurance in the face of adversity and guarded happiness next to his wife. Not exactly textured. Instead of giving Robinson a character arch, Helgeland rather reenact the many iconic moments of Jackie’s first year as a pro.
The only time 42 hits a homerun (he he, pun) is in the scene that pits Robinson against the racist manager of the Phillies, Ben Chapman. As Jackie takes the plate, Chapman heckles him in the most offensive way imaginable. Robinson struggles to keep calm until one of his teammates crosses the field to confront the former outfielder. Alan Tudyk (of Firefly fame) kills it as the bigoted coach: He makes you want to hurt Chapman.
Baseball fans may find 42 too simple: We barely get a glimpse of Jackie Robinson’s skills (other than his penchant for stealing base, little else is showcased). The film mostly works as an introduction to the man, but to understand his legacy, check out Ken Burns’ phenomenal documentary series Baseball. Even better, read “Baseball’s Great Experiment” by Jules Tygiel.