Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson
Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey
Christopher Meloni as Léo Durocher
John C. McGinley as Red Barber
Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese
Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman
Nicole Beharie as Rachel Isum
C. J. Nitkowski as Dutch Leonard
Brett Cullen as Clay Hopper
Kelley Jakle as Alice
Ryan Merriman as Dixie Walker
T. R. Knight as Harold Parrott
Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca
It's 1947 and post-war America is in a state of flux, and nothing shows that more than baseball, the microcosm of America at the time. A horde of professional baseball players have returned from the shores of Europe and not just in the Major League. Players in the Negro Leagues also returned, bringing with them some of the best players in the game—Satchel Page, Josh Gibson—all dreaming of a turn in the Show. And one player who stood above all of them, Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who would be the one to make that jump when he's offered to play as number "42" on the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Jackie Robinson's story has been one of THE inspirational stories of not just baseball but of 20th Century America, featuring one of the few great men who recognized the moment he was in and lived up to it, playing not just the best baseball of his life but doing so in spite of the vitriol and bile thrown his way. Hatefulness he never raised a fist to on the field. It was the only way baseball could have been integrated at the time and he was the right person in the right place at the right time to do it.
On the one hand, it's a wonder Brian Helgeland's ("Payback," "A Knight's Tale") big screen retelling of Robinson's accomplishment has never been made before. Studios eat up 'inspiration' like this, and sometimes audiences do, too.
With all the time that has passed and the weight of history behind it, Helgeland has chosen to be extremely careful with his material, choosing to ignore the call of the biography and focus in on just the momentous events at hand – Robinson's years in the minors leading up to and through his rookie season with the Dodgers. That focus has allowed him to bypass some of the pitfalls of the biopic and craft a more elegant and certainly more entertaining narrative.
And that is a narrative of trial, like Job but with less fishing and more baseball. For Robinson, the call comes like a bolt out of the blue when Dodgers owner Branch Ricky (an absolutely superb Harrison Ford) decides come hell or high water he will integrate his team and open them up to a potential flood of new ticket buyers in the process.
The religious analogue is not accidental. Ricky frequently intones both his actions and his management style itself through the lens of his faith; a lens "42" carries from beginning to end, casting Robinson as some sort of modern-day Savior.
Which is the other hand to "42." It's too aware of the symbolism it is dealing with and can't pull away from it enough to try and turn its characters into real people, instead focusing on easily digestible, repetitive emotional chunks.
Jackie himself is a naturally combative personality who has no problem standing up to the prejudice he finds around the country. It's an instinct he quick realizes he will have to hold on to as he faces a torrent of it from both in and outside the Dodgers.
Which is about as complex as "42" cares to get. After that, it quickly drops into scenes of Jackie being tested followed by a pep talk either from his wife (Nicole Beharie), Ricky or one of his teammates. And the odd moment of schadenfreude when people who have been nasty to Jackie get their comeuppance, of course.
It takes something real and turns it into corn, pulling much of the power from it. It's fun to watch, mainly due to the strength of the character actors filling out the supporting cast – Ford, Beharie, Christopher Meloni's unfortunately brief turn as the Dodgers flammable General Manager. It's balanced out, for better or for worse, by the younger actors such as Jackie's chronicler, or his various teammates on the Dodgers. They inevitably get the worst dialogue and unlike some of their older co-stars don't yet have the skill to sell it.
"42" is enjoyable as hagiography goes, but for a genuinely important subject it has all the density of a soufflé. Yeah, it could have been over-serious and unwatchable, but in trying to avoid that Helgeland has gone a bit too far in the opposite direction, taking something that could have been great and reducing it just sort of harmless.