Hagiography isn’t as popular in religious literature as it once was, but it certainly still dominates in sports biopics. The latest example is Brian Helgeland’s “42,” a docu-drama about Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in major league baseball, in which a variety of character actors—as well as Harrison Ford—do what amount to vaudeville turns in dramatizing the ballplayer’s history-making hiring by the Brooklyn Dodgers, as well as his first season with the team. Every scene and line of dialogue is calculated to contribute to the screenplay’s theme of Robinson as a long-suffering young man who employed his remarkable physical talent to challenge racist hiring policies in what, at the time, was the quintessential American sport—and patiently suppressed the urge to respond in kind to his bigoted tormentors in the process. The result is inspirational, but in the heavy-handed way more characteristic of sermons than really good movies.
One suspects that the real Robinson was a considerably more complicated, multifaceted individual than the iconic figure that Chadwick Boseman, the attractive but largely unknown actor who plays him here, can create, given the script’s propensities for the simplistic. (The picture mentions his military court martial, for example, so quickly that you might miss it entirely.) He certainly manages the part’s physical demands as well as the only modestly challenging dramatic ones. Overall, Boseman certainly proves agreeable enough as the screenplay follows Robinson’s ascent from the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs to the Dodgers’ minor-league feeder in Montreal and finally to the Brooklyn club itself.
But the rhythm of Helgeland’s treatment quickly becomes predictable—and crushingly obvious. There’s some incident of racism directed against Robinson—from a couple involving whites-only restrooms near the start through the sneering order of a cop for him to leave the field to the tirade that Pittsburgh manager Ben Chapman screamed at him while he was preparing to take his turn at the plate, as well as rebuffs from players (including some teammates) and the jeers of the crowd. But in almost each case it’s followed by the perpetrator getting his comeuppance, either being forced to recant (as Chapman is) or simply being shamed (like the little boy in the stands who mimics his father’s taunts but reconsiders when his hero Pee Wee Reese makes his famous public demonstration of solidarity with his teammate). And even when that doesn’t happen, Robinson’s steely resolve and self-control make it a triumphant moment. Need one add that these episodes are invariably italicized by Mark Isham’s shamelessly manipulative score?
Actually, some of those scenes work reasonably well, simply because the movie has been cannily cast. Lucas Black exudes charm as Reese, and Alan Tudyk is all sneering venom as Chapman. Hamish Linklater also deserves mention as Ralph Branca, who has a particularly good bit when he persuades Robinson to shower with the rest of the team, even though the comedy of embarrassment is awfully broad. And Christopher Meloni is a winningly gruff Leo Durocher, while Max Gail is nicely diffident as his emergency replacement Burt Shotton.
But the best moments certainly belong to Harrison Ford, who makes Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey , who hires Robinson, a wonderfully outsized character—and not merely because he sports plenty of padding and facial makeup, most notably a bulbous nose. Ford is obviously enjoying the opportunity to shed his usual taciturn image and get back to the more raucous style of Han Solo, and it pays off. His Rickey may not be the most credible guy in the world, but with his mixture of showmanship and genuine passion to end racism in the game he loves, he comes across as a P.T. Barnum with soul. In a very real sense Ford’s bravura turn mirrors the picture’s overall style, which, in Don Burgess’ glossy widescreen cinematography, might be described as Hollywood slick, with brightly-lit period locations and costumes that come across as ostentatiously unreal and shot as to bathe everything in an aura of light.
One other performance in “42” should be singled out—that of John C. McGinley as the Dodgers’ announcer Red Barber. His scenes look as though they’d been shot in a single day—he recites the lines of play-by-play alone in a booth, and never interacts with anybody else. But they’re great lines (apparently lifted from Barber’s own broadcasts), and McGinley delivers them with the perfect tone of cheeky understatement. One can only imagine what the real Barber might have said about this movie, which has its heart in the right place but plays the inspirational card far too often, and too ham-fistedly, to register as anything but a neutered Classic Comic Book version of an earthshaking episode in American sports history. But when a movie like “The Blind Side” is embraced by so many viewers, perhaps this equally calculating treatment of Jackie Robinson will be, too.
And if nothing else, you can always wait for Ford’s next volcanic eruption.