42 (Warner Brothers, PG-13)

42 75This is a subtle story of a man who knows what he is doing, internalizes his feelings, and persists until the world is forced to change around him.

 

42 500 

It’s very rare these days for me to see a trailer for a movie I know nothing about and be convinced to see the movie advertised. I was clueless about 42, but I was surprised by how involving the trailer was. As much as I don’t care about any sports, baseball seems to have the best cinematic record, and I was surprised to realize that the story of Jackie Robinson had never really been told outside of documentaries and TV movies. I figured I’d give it a shot.

My big question going in was whether or not 42 was going to fit into this genre I’ve started calling “white guilt-sploitation.” These are movies like The Help, which are about issues of racism and bigotry, but are told through the perspective of white people, so that white audiences can shake their heads disapprovingly about how bad racism is, but feel good about the fact that there are some nice white people to help these poor, underprivileged folks achieve their goals.

Does 42 fit this description? Yes and no. On the one hand, we do spend a significant amount of time with Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford. He is the first person we see, he gets all the good lines, and he seems to solve most of the problems. You can almost smell the studio executives not trusting white audiences to care enough about a black protagonist.

But, on the other hand, that black protagonist is pretty strong. Jackie Robinson is played by Chadwick Boseman, a TV actor who was completely unknown to me. He’s very good. He has the makings of a great leading man, which means he’ll probably get cast as the hero’s friend in some cop movie after this. What I like about the character and his performance is how understated he is. In his first scene with Rickey, he is told that he has to control his temper and resist the urge to fight back (physically) against the bigotry he encounters. And he does. I expected the story to be about him growing from an angry young man into a mature adult who realizes that his mentor was right all along. Instead, we get a much more subtle story of a man who knows what he is doing, internalizes his feelings, and persists until the world is forced to change around him.

I should also discuss Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Branch Rickey. He’s almost unrecognizable with slicked-back hair, a large pair of glasses, and an even larger accent. He seems to be trying to get an Oscar. I don’t know that he gives a great performance, but he appears to be having fun for the first time in at least a decade. Also, I saw a bit of that rogue we all love as opposed to the grumpy curmudgeon he has recently been playing in movies, and apparently in his everyday life.

And what about the baseball in the movie? I wanted more of it. Don’t get me wrong—there is plenty of time spent on the field, but rather than linger with a game, we mostly get a series of short bits that focus on the reactions of the other players or on an individual play by Robinson. It’s established early on that the way for him to get accepted is to be the best player. “It’s all about the game” is a mantra that gets repeated throughout. The pacing is weird, and made it kind of hard for me to see what Robinson really brought to the team, and how his teammates grew to like and respect him.

From the moment 42 began to its very last frame, I was distinctly aware of the fact that it was trying to manipulate me. Every time Mark Isham’s obnoxiously overbearing score swelled or some character said some ridiculously inspiring line that no one would ever say, I felt a slight twitch that told me that I was not watching a great movie. But for whatever reason, it mostly worked. I give most of the credit to the actors, specifically Boseman and Nicole Beharie, who plays Robinson’s loving, supportive wife. I’ll also call out Don Burgess’s beautiful cinematography, which is very good without drawing too much attention to itself. 

Maybe if 42 had been released in December I would have seen it as the Oscar bait that it is and been more immune to its charms, but now, four months into a fairly dismal year for movies, I found it pretty engrossing. I’ve always subscribed to the late Roger Ebert’s belief that every movie should be appreciated on its own terms, and rated based on its genre and what it’s trying to be. As an example of a safe white guilt-sploitation biopic, 42 is above average—which, I guess, means you should see it. | Sean Lass

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