Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Lucas Black
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements including language
Runtime: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Bottom line: Too talky, but worthy of its hero
Legendary Pictures’ biopic “42” opens this Friday, timed to coincide with Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day, when the league commemorates Robinson’s major league debut and the end of the color line in baseball.
The timing of the movie’s release is possibly the key thing to know about the movie, because “42” is an unashamed hero piece made to glorify an American hero.
There is no attempt to reduce the scope to Jackie Robinson The Man, although we do get some insight into how he endured the abuse that came with being the first black player in the majors.
Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) relies on his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), to be his rock. They know what they are getting into and what it means, and it is only because of their astounding love for each other that they can carry such a burden. The portrayal of their marriage is one of the most romantic things I’ve seen in a while.
Otherwise, though, the movie doesn’t attempt to humanize him. This is about Jackie Robinson The Legend.
It works surprisingly well as a hero piece, mostly because the acting is so good.
Boseman and Beharie are about to become stars because of this film, and deservedly so. But they are supported by a host of great actors, including Toby Huss, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, T.R. Knight, Alan Tudyk and John C. McGinley.
Perhaps no one is better, though, than Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. This just might be Ford’s best acting work. I’ve never seen him transform himself to this extent, and he has never been as powerful.
It’s a good thing these performances are so strong, too, because they — mostly — save “42” from becoming too saccharin.
We are subjected to copious platitudes about race, several characters grow from being racist to accepting Robinson, and it turns into a stream of contrived moments of interracial understanding. We all hopefully agree with the sentiment, but it becomes tedious viewing.
The movie is best when the characters stop talking altogether.
Perhaps the most effective scene comes during Robinson’s first spring training game. The racist white pitcher on the mound intentionally walks him, openly showing his disdain.
Once Robinson gets on base, though, he uses his abilities to rattle the pitcher. He takes a tauntingly long lead off of first but is too quick for the pitcher to throw him out. By the time he has stolen second and third, the pitcher is so discombobulated he balks, sending Robinson home for a run scored.
The sequence makes running the bases seem revolutionary, a civil rights victory. The screening audience applauded at a character walking to home plate!
“42” also reminds us how dangerous all of this really was. Major league pitchers threw hard even in 1947, and a few of them try to brush back Robinson or throw directly at him. Director Brian Helgeland puts the camera right behind the plate, where the impact of the ball is tangible. Suddenly, just standing in to take a pitch seems a courageous act — and it was.
A biopic of Jackie Robinson is long overdue, at least one that’s better than the 1950 B-movie “The Jackie Robinson Story,” starring Robinson himself. He is hugely important to American culture, particularly to the advancement of race relations.
Which begs the question, what does “42” say about race in America in 2013? The answer is debatable.
Yes, racism is unfortunately still a fact in American life, but the context is radically different. Robinson was battling institutionalized, overt racism and the battle lines (segregated sports, hotels, bathrooms and all the other evils of the Jim Crow era) were out in the open.
Today, race isn’t just a matter of black versus white, and racism tends to be more covert.
But the goal of “42” doesn’t seem to be to comment on current race relations. Before anything else, it tries to solidify Robinson’s legacy by reminding younger generations of his accomplishments.
It’s also a very enjoyable, crowd-pleasing movie that should be on everyone’s must-see list.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University
of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.