Brian Helgeland’s 42 is a dull and forgettable film about one of America’s most exciting and important heroes. It is not strictly a bio-pic of Jackie Robinson, but it might as well be as it is plagued by all the usual problems of this most wearisome genre. Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson, the man who broke Baseball’s color barrier by becoming the first Negro to play in the major leagues. Boseman is a TV actor and 42 plays like a TV movie--the kind that was made in the ‘80s, but with higher production values. Helgeland, the screenwriter of such prestige pictures as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River, focuses his film on Robinson’s calm determination in the face of the extreme racial prejudice he faced when selected to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The film presents all the expected, by-the-number scenes found in most bio-pics, but we never get a sense of Robinson the man because his inner life is not explored with any dimension. We also get an embarrassing performance from Harrison Ford as Branch Ricky, the Dodgers owner who signed Robinson and helped guide him through the ordeal he faced. Ford, now 70, is a great movie star, and a dynamic leading man, but if this film is any indication, he will not make the transition to character actor in his later years.
Even if you know nothing about baseball, you know the Jackie Robinson story. Perhaps it is for this reason that the stakes feel so low in this movie. When we witness the constant depictions of racism, discrimination, cruelty and injustice that Jackie faces, it all feels instantly worthwhile and reassuring because we know that he will soon be changing the face of baseball, and with it the face of race relations in America. We never see what it must have been like for this extraordinary man to go through this extreme test of courage with its far-from-guaranteed outcome. What good is a film like this if all it can do is shows us pictures of things we already know? It is the responsibility of a true-story picture to provide us with a deeper understanding of history than we can get from a textbook or Wikipedia entry.
Robinson’s exceptional and inspirational story deserves an infinitely better film than the prosaic and hackneyed movies Hollywood has come up with so far. Robinson notably played himself in the 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story, with Ruby Dee as his wife and Minor Watson as Branch Rickey, but that film is even more routine and pedestrian than 42. So far, the best depiction of Jackie’s life is in Ken Burn’s PBS Baseball documentary, which devotes most of a 2+ hour episode to the diverse and fascinating complexities of this story.