42 tells the story of how Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, and that’s all.
No superlatives, nothing to gossip about. It doesn’t probe deep into the mindset of 1947 America, and it doesn’t take a probing, contemplative study of our national identity as it pertains to race and prejudice.
It just tells the story of how a young black man came to be a Major League Baseball icon.
It’s simple, direct, and to-the-point, and for that reason it’s one of the better films to tackle one of the most significant moments in sports history.
In 1945, following the end of the Second World War, Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), decides to take a huge gamble by bringing a black man into the national pastime. After an exhaustive search of the stars of the Negro Leagues, he selects Kansas City Monarchs shortstop Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman).
The beauty of the story is that it isn’t so much about breaking cultural barriers (though that’s certainly a big part of it) as it is about Jackie breaking his personal barriers. Boseman portrays Robinson as a very proud man, a man who has to learn not only how to be there for his teammates but who has to learn to let his teammates – as well as the other people that shape his world – be there for him.
It’s a film about acceptance and how allowing for personal growth can, in extraordinary circumstances, allow for the growth of an entire culture.
Brian Helgeland, who directed and wrote the screenplay, goes the extra mile to ensure that this is a movie about people as much as it is about history, and yet he crafts the story in such a way that it could be taking place at any time with any people, which enables us to identify with the characters as people rather than as legends.
Boseman is great as Robinson and delivers a performance that encapsulates everything that made the real man such an iconic figure. There’s a remarkable scene in which Robinson has just weathered a barrage of racial slurs from Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) on the field where Boseman conveys anger, resentment, humility, defeat, and resilience, all in a scene that lasts about four minutes.
Ford delivers a pretty good performance as Rickey, but there are times when he seems like he’s trying too hard. Like Tom Hanks, whenever Ford plays a role that’s slightly beyond his comfort zone, he tends to overreach to a certain extent. But his commitment to the role and his energy and enthusiasm help us to overlook it.
The real anchor to the film is Nicole Beharie, who plays Rachel, Jackie’s wife. Any movie about a larger-than-life figure needs to have someone who keeps him grounded, and Beharie does a fantastic job of being a window for the audience. She feels all of Jackie’s excitement and suffers all of his pain, just as we do, a testament to both her performance as well as Helgeland’s writing and directing.
The presentation of the baseball scenes is among the best in recent memory. Helgeland and director of photography Don Burgess take a unique approach to the action on the field, one that leaves the audience immersed in the events as if we were living them rather than spectating from the stands.
42 isn’t without its share of weaknesses, however. As good as Ford is in the role of Branch Rickey, Helgeland seems to overwrite the character.
There are about five speeches Rickey delivers in the movie that are as heavy-handed as they come, and as well-intentioned as Rickey’s pontifications about race, society, and fairness are, they serve to rip us out of the story and remind us that we’re watching a history lesson, a stark contrast to the timeless and immersive quality of the rest of the picture.
And the role of Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), the newspaper reporter chronicling Jackie’s historic journey to the Dodgers, is actually underwritten. I was interested in this character and would have liked to have seen him play on a larger stage, although Holland does a great job with what he’s given.
Ultimately, 42‘s greatest strength is its ability to tell a story without spending an inordinate amount of time reminding us of how special that story is.
It’s simple, aside from a few elegiac moments, and forgoes the pretention that some filmmakers might be tempted to burden it with.
Warner Bros. brings 42 to Blu-ray with a beautiful 1080p MPEG-4 AVC transfer that takes advantage of the period setting, bringing the somber, plain, sepia tones often associated with films taking place in the 1940s and blending them with the bright-yet-earthy tones of the baseball field. Colors are vibrant but not distracting, and figures are well-defined in spite of the bright light of day baseball (remember that?) that seemed to wash out some outdoor scenes in the theatrical release.
The sound is also done very well, as the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix provides a great balance between dialogue and action sounds. Every crack of the bat rings throughout the rear speakers without distracting from the action. The sounds of the crowd add to the ambiance of the game scenes without becoming overpowering, and dialogue is always clean and understandable even in the busiest of scenes.
Beyond the Feature
The only extras are a trio of 10-minute featurettes, but all carry their fair share of information – even if each one could have stood to be about 10 minutes longer.
First is Stepping Into History (9:14) that details Ford and Boseman’s transformations into the characters they play, with the actors providing insight into their performances. It’s a fascinating look at the actor’s method, even if some of it is a tad on the generic side.
Full-Contact Baseball (10:05) details the crafting of the baseball scenes and features interviews from the cast and crew about not only how the actors had to become believable baseball players, but also how they had to learn to become baseball players of the 40s, a time when the game was known more for scrappiness and grit than for grace and beauty.
Rounding out the special features is The Legacy of the Number 42 (9:17), featuring interviews from baseball luminaries about the significance of Robinson’s debut in the Major Leagues.
Again, all the features have their fair share of interest about them, but they’re all done on subjects that warrant a bit more exploration.
All bonus features are presented in high definition. Also included in the set is a DVD and an UltraViolet digital copy of the film.
42 isn’t a great film. It’s one of the better baseball movies to be made in recent years, but it isn’t even a great baseball film.
Having said that, it is a special film.
It takes an extraordinary event, one that many of us have been brought up to understand as one of the most significant of its time, and it brings it down to earth.
It’s a film of poise and grace, and it reminds us that our heroes are humans without downplaying what makes them heroic in the first place.
Shop for 42 on Blu-ray for a discounted price at Amazon.com (July 16, 2013 release date).