Sunday 21 March 2021

Movie Review: 42 (2013)

A biography about Jackie Robinson, 42 is an inspiring story of nation-changing courage. 

With the end of World War Two ushering in a new era of social upheaval, the crusty owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) makes the bold decision to recruit the first Black player from the Negro league into the major leagues. He selects the Kansas City Monarch's spirited shortstop Jack Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), an army veteran with a tendency to push against segregation rules, as the player to break the colour barrier.

Branch warns his new recruit that he will need guts to maintain his temperament despite abhorrent abuse. Robinson accepts the challenge and marries his sweetheart Rachel (Nicole Beharie), while Black reporter Wendell Smith (AndrĂ© Holland) is assigned to cover the player's progress. After an initial season with the Montreal affiliate team Robinson proves himself an effective hitter and fiendish base runner, and makes it onto the Brooklyn roster as a first baseman. In the big leagues he has to overcome racist attitudes from his teammates, opponents, and the fans, while developing into a top performer, team leader and inspiration.

One of baseball's all-time greats, Robinson was both a phenomenal ball player and a remarkable pioneer. Writer and director Brian Helgeland approaches the story from the perspective of both Robinson and Rickey, providing 42 with a dual narrative thrust and two strong-willed characters shouldering the responsibility of creating history.

Despite a relatively long running time of over two hours, Helgeland keeps the pacing brisk. The early years are skipped and the story starts where it matters most, with Rickey seeing the future and deciding to change the present, both to challenge racist attitudes and as a business decision to strengthen his team. The absence of childhood or contextual material about either man helps with immediate immersiveness, but does leave formative gaps.

With two exemplary men at the heart of the story, 42 looks at the periphery for villains. Philadelphia Flyers manager Ben Chapman steps forward as the worst example of on-field bigotry, spewing hatred at Robinson in a hideous trial by fire. A succession of opposing pitchers are more physical in demonstrating their disdain towards a Black man in their sport, throwing at his head.

But Robinson's story is one of seismic change, albeit earned slowly and with great difficulty. When hatred is exposed it causes goodness to come forth, and while Helgeland is not always successful drawing out Robinson's teammates as individuals, gradually the Dodgers players come together to support and celebrate their Black colleague, prodding baseball through a one-way door towards a better era of integration.

Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman create an unlikely odd couple, the veteran owner and brash newcomer perfectly complementing each other. Ford chews into the role of Branch Rickey with a marvellous twinkle in his eye, and Boseman occupies Robinson's soul with a measured performance combining spirit with dignity.

On a field where remarkable dreams can come true, 42 is a worthy celebration of a true hero's emergence.

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