It’s almost hard not to feel at least some romance with baseball. A truly American sport that thrives every summer in backyard ballparks, local parks, and big league stadiums. Baseball runs so deep in American culture that it is almost idolized by some people. It isn’t without its flaws, as evidenced by the steroid scandals of the past two decades, but many fans will argue that it is as statistically pure of a game as can be. The story of 42 follows some of baseball’s darker days when segregation was the norm, and when the Brooklyn Dodgers broke decades of unspoken rules by playing one of the greatest players in the game, Jackie Robinson.
42 follows the story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) as the Dodgers and GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) take the leap to integrate him into the league. The film focuses mainly on the struggles that Robinson faced on his way to becoming a cultural icon. For someone so beloved today, it’s hard to believe just how harsh the game was to Jackie when he first came into the league. Plenty of racial epithets are hurled his way in the beginning, and no shortage of pitches aimed at his head. We follow Robinson as he rises above it all, and slowly the people around him rise to the occasion with him.
The film should have one of the easiest jobs in the world. There are few greater sports fairy tales than Jackie Robinson. Robinson entered the league despised by many, and by the time he left it he was one of the most popular men in the country. One could argue that his barrier breaking entrance into the major leagues from the negro leagues was one of the more important events in the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, the story follows the microcosm and devolves into cliches and engineered scenes to induce warm feelings. The film treats its audience with little respect by overusing broad musical cues whenever an important event happens, not allowing the audience to already see the obvious event right in front of them. It hardly expands out beyond Jackie and looks at how his presence has changed more than baseball.
While many of the main players in the film, Boseman and Ford do outstanding jobs in their characters. Much of the supporting cast are merely tropes from other sports films or other films that deal with racial equality. There is no doubt that Robinson encountered much racism throughout his career and especially in the beginning, but it’s hard to believe that some of it is so cartoonish. The worst of it being Brad Beyer’s Kirby Higbe who isn’t at all aided by his script. Another offender is Ryan Merriman’s Dixie Walker, who only knows how to scowl. The film does itself a disservice by villainizing Walker until the end, and never mentioning the fact that Walker later came out in support of Robinson, and even saluted him when the Dodgers won the pennant.
Among other disappointing aspects of the film is the overall flow of the film, which at a two hour running time could have either packed more in or been shortened considerably. The film introduces characters and does nothing with them after their introduction. It focuses on certain aspects for too long, and then quickly shuffles past other moments that would have been of great service to it.
42 isn’t awful, in fact the film might be worth seeing just for Ford’s performance as Branch Rickey. The film is one that isn’t too far above a made for TV movie. Great to watch, but the substance isn’t quite there. It’s a shame because the story of Robinson is a true American tale that we are unlikely to see again any time soon.