Despite strengths, 42 falls flat in retelling Jackie Robinson's story
When I went to a screening of Moneyball, I approached it as if I were going to a movie about which I didn't know the entire backstory and a handful of the characters. I didn't expect a documentary, and it would have been unfair to the filmmakers to evaluate the movie as one. I sat down to enjoy a movie as anyone would on a Friday night, and in doing so, found myself drawn into the film, its characters, its writing, its story. Moneyball wasn't as captivating as the book it was based on, but it was a good ride -- with some excellent individual performances -- nevertheless.
My intention in screening 42 was the same -- forget what I know and enjoy a movie. While I was largely able to do that, the experience wasn't as rewarding. While there are some strong scenes, and as with Moneyball, terrific work by the individual actors, the movie as a whole falls flat. It's not that you know how it ends -- to be honest, I didn't, largely because I didn't expect the film to cover such a limited time frame -- but that the movie simply doesn't provide enough reason to get lost in it.
The film feels less like a whole than it does a series of vignettes, and it falls far too often into mythology and caricature to let you attach yourself to Chadwick Boseman's Jackie Robinson and Nicole Beharie's Rachel Robinson and appreciate their struggle. Not every virulent racist in the post-war South was old enough to remember Reconstruction. Not every black person of the era was calm and wise beyond their years. Branch Rickey wasn't a cross between Gandhi, Scrooge McDuck and your grandfather.
There are simply too many scenes in which the film is hitting you over the head with its message. A game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati is the background for a strong scene between Rickey (Harrison Ford) and Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) in Rickey's office. That devolves into extended schmaltz once the teams take the field in Cincinnati, first with a father/son jeering experience and then as a famed, and possibly apocryphal, Reese/Robinson on-field moment that is extended to absurd lengths. The movie's final scene plays out as if director Brian Helgeland had his first sexual experience in a drive-in during the conclusion of The Natural.
Boseman does what he can with what he's given, but the fundamental problem with playing Jackie Robinson is that the job is about not doing. Robinson was asked to swallow everything and ball it up inside, channeling everything into winning baseball games. Boseman is a believable baserunner and fielder, so the film doesn't get bogged down in the usual problem of having a star play a baseball player so poorly that it's distracting. No, the problem Boseman has is that the rest of the time, the nature of the character he's inhabiting means there isn't much for him to do. The one occasion in which he's allowed to express his emotions rings completely untrue.
Because of this, Boseman is at his best when playing opposite Nicole Beharie as his wife, Rachel. The best parts of the movie are when the two of them are alone on camera. Despite there not being nearly enough exploration of their relationship, every scene between them feels real. A movie that allowed for more of them, and less time at the ballpark, would have been a more interesting exploration of what it was like for Jackie Robinson in 1947. In that same vein, there wasn't enough interplay between Robinson and his teammates, although one scene with Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca is a highlight -- and provides much-needed humor.
Ford plays Rickey as if he studied very, very hard for the role, and wanted to not be seen as Harrison Ford on screen. (When off camera, his voice sounded so much like that of John Goodman as to be distracting.) Ford succeeds, but in doing so, creates a Rickey who lacks any subtlety or nuance.
But for the extensive -- and absolutely necessary -- use of vile racial epithets, 42 would be a G-rated telling of the Jackie Robinson story, a way to introduce boys and girls to the man who helped change baseball, and by extension, America, for the better. There's nothing wrong with making that movie, but it feels like there was a better one left on the table, one that explores the Robinsons' life in the midst of the chaos created by Jackie's ballplaying, one that delves into the complicated mess that was Branch Rickey, one that doesn't waste time building up Robinson's legend -- is that even possible? -- and spends more time dealing with the people behind the schoolbook tales.
42 doesn't tell me anything I didn't already know, which isn't the problem. The problem is it doesn't make me forget that along the way.