More than any other American sporting pastime, baseball is built on tension and anticipation. A pitcher’s careful windup, the long arc of a fly ball falling somewhere between the stands and the warning track, a ground ball spinning along the dirt towards the outfield—every action is reflexive, over before the pitcher’s back leg finds ground again. A great baseball movie captures the sight and sound of the ballpark, like that rubber band that slowly stretches and snaps in one direction to the other. Win or loss. Out or safe. 42 is no exception. The film is clearly in love with the game, caressing every windup and subsequent thock of the bat with brilliant saturation and roaring crowds. We are treated—and eventually subjected to—a whole host of slow-motion pans that find tranquility on the diamond even while chaos reigns outside.
Director Brian Helgeland’s struggle, however, comes in balancing the intricacies of a baseball game with a very uncomplicated chronicle of barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). We follow Robinson’s rapid ascension through the minor leagues and into the bigs through a series of encounters with alternately enlightened and bigoted ballplayers, managers and fans. America’s postwar racism seems to fall along geographic lines—most (not all!) people south of Brooklyn have serious bones to pick with Robinson’s inclusion, and the Dodgers slowly form a protective shell around their star rookie. The boyish affection of his teammates and the guttural clucks and coos of Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) keep Robinson’s head up, as Rickey offers gentle reminders of the masses that have taken him as their hero.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers feel the need to keep reminding us, and the Dodgers’ trips across America are littered with awestruck young black youth, mouths perpetually agape at the sight of Jack Robinson. Then again, 42’s personality comes from the willingness to indulge its audience with both these syrupy moments and the honky-tonk cultural kitsch of 1950’s America. The games are peppered with old-timey commentary from Red Barber (John C. McGinley)—“Robinson’s dancing around first like a cat with a hot foot”—and inserts of fedoras in the crowd. Robinson’s wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) settles into the comfortable role of doting housewife: unquestionably supportive, doe-eyed, and submissive, brought to tears by the abuse suffered by her husband.
That all said, as a fond gesture to a country coming out of the dark ages, 42 is a good-hearted attempt at Robinson’s story regardless of the historical realities it chose to gloss over. Uncomplicated by twists, the film comes to its rest, safe in the certainty that Robinson’s struggle paved the way towards change.