By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
In 1950, Jackie Robinson starred in an inspirational biopic about his life and his experience breaking the color barrier in baseball. The subject was fresh: He’d only just had his first season in the major leagues in 1947.
Robinson’s legacy has been well-covered since then, especially on TV, but there hasn’t been a bigscreen account of his life until now. “42” is just about what you’d expect, a straightforward account that hits the expected emotional beats and can be shown in classrooms for years to come.
Yet it has some interesting touches, too. It begins (after a very clumsy newsreel-style opening sequence, included to give the audience a history lesson) with the irascible owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, hatching a plan after World War II: He’ll end segregation in baseball by signing a black player.
Rickey is played by Harrison Ford, under craggy make-up. Ford gives a hammy performance throughout the movie, but the casting is shrewd; when he flashes the crooked Han Solo smile, even a white supremacist might melt a little.
Jackie Robinson is, of course, the player. He’s played by Chadwick Boseman, an actor mostly known from TV, who is credible as an athlete and able to play Robinson as something other than a symbol.
Robinson’s wife is played by Nicole Beharie, who had some memorable time in the 2011 film “Shame.” She and Boseman are given scenes meant to portray the human side of the Robinsons, and despite the efforts of the two actors, these scenes always come across as meant to portray the human side of the Robinsons—they don’t have much life of their own.
The outline of the movie is familiar to the biopic, and the drama of Robinson’s endurance through vicious racism is compelling. The film leaps over his year in the minor leagues, playing for triple-A Montreal, and concentrates on his rookie season with the Dodgers, in 1947.
Writer-director Brian Helgeland has chosen specific moments to portray the vitriol hurled at Robinson, including the vile vocal abuse from Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk, holding nothing back) and a petition among other Dodgers players to keep Robinson off the team.
Helgeland hasn’t whitewashed the language of the era, with more uses of the “n-word” than you’ll hear in a Quentin Tarantino picture. To do anything else would be falsifying history, and softening the abuse Robinson had to silently endure (he’d agreed with Rickey that responding in kind would harm the integration project).
That language may be why the movie has a PG-13 rating, and why it carries more oomph than the average TV-movie.
I didn’t expect a Jackie Robinson biopic to take a gritty approach, or get into the depths of Robinson’s thoughts, and this movie doesn’t. But it takes care to allude to the complexities of the thornier issues surrounding this moment in American history, while remaining a monument to a man of immense courage.
“42” (3 stars)
A biopic focusing on the couple of years surrounding Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough as the first black ballplayer in the major leagues. The film conveys the racist abuse rained on Robinson during this period, and although it conforms to the usual bio formula, it suggests a few complexities within Robinson’s heroic journey. Harrison Ford plays Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, and Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson.
Rated: PG-13 for subject matter, language.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Edmonds, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Meridian, Thornton Place, Varsity, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor.