Movie Review: '42' -- 3.5 stars
Directed by Brian Helgeland
Starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie
Baseball is just a game, of course, but it's also so much more than that. You could argue about whether the sport deserves the title of national pastime, but it is one of the few constants in the last century-plus of American life, a strand that transcends the passage of time to link wildly disparate generations.
Similarly, as seen in the new flick "42," Jackie Robinson disputed the notion that he was anything but a ballplayer, maintaining that he had joined the Brooklyn Dodgers not to make any sort of grand statement as the first black player in Major League Baseball, but to win games.
The truth, of course, is that Robinson wasn't your everyday sports star. He remains one of the few genuine American heroes, a larger-than-life figure who played an essential role in the Civil Rights struggle simply by showing up to play for the Dodgers beginning in 1947, and for having the courage, as Harrison Ford's Branch Rickey puts it, "not to fight back" against overwhelming racism.
That's not news, obviously, but it's a message that bears repeating and a story that is forever worth telling. So it's a surprise that "42" is just the second big-screen Robinson biopic, arriving in theaters three days before the 66th anniversary of his big-league debut. Brian Helgeland's flick, starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie, chronicles the icon's first two years in professional baseball. It ranges from his signing by Rickey through his year with the minor-league Montreal Royals and his first campaign in Brooklyn.
The movie is sentimental, and it has a right to be, but the actors take great pains to portray their characters as men (and, in the case of Nicole Beharie's Rachel Robinson, a woman) in full. Similarly, Helgeland avoids the classic baseball movie mistake of being swallowed up by mythology. This isn't a film filled with lights-shattering home runs a la "The Natural" and the awkward dramatic devices (a young African-American kid praying to God for Jackie) are kept to a minimum.
There's plenty of period action for the baseball fan, from a recreation of Ebbets Field to John C. McGinley's sterling Red Barber impersonation. Jackie is seen on the diamond, tormenting pitchers by dangling off the bases, forever threatening to steal the next bag.
But "42" isn't really about the sport. This is a movie about a man who put on his uniform each day, stepped up to the plate and did his job at significant physical risk, in the face of hateful taunts, vicious threats and profound isolation. It's the stuff that history is made of.