I can understand the resistance to film the story of Jackie Robinson since the man himself played the role in 1950. Robinson is a legend so grand that actors would struggle to approach the man behind the story. Onscreen, should Jackie be destined for greatness? Or just a talented anybody who became everything by breaking racial barriers on the platform of pro baseball? So I think it wise that Brian Helgelend, sometime director and busy workman screenwriter, adapted the story in a glamorized, Hollywood fashion. It is the story of legend, and 42 wisely treats it as such.
A morally motivated Brooklyn Dodgers owner, Branch Rickey (played with charm by Harrison Ford), desires a “negro” ballplayer for personal reasons and to capture black ticket-buyers. He pulls Jackie from a list, much like Apollo Creed chooses to fight the “Italian Stallion” in John G. Avildsen’s famous franchise launcher (with racial conditions very different, and yet in kind). The appearance of Baby Robinson, later in the film, would feel routine in a studio biopic of the 1930s and 40s. It’s apparent that Branch will serve as a type of mentor to Jackie, in that he teaches the young hot-head player to keep his cool – accept that a new era can come about only gradually, in subtlety. That Jackie appears as a Christ figure is banal, and just like a base-stealing motif that also threatens to overwhelm the work at first, it’s delivered swiftly before the film moves on. (The base steal returns much later, as a welcoming payoff.)
Knowing how to negotiate established properties and Hollywood (consider his scripts for LA Confidential and Mystic River), Helgeland shapes Jackie into a tested and proven American archetype: the strong, silent type. On a frontier quite different to John Ford’s, Jackie must check his defiant urges to keep his goals in sight. With Branch’s guidance, we have a Man of Action with a guardian angel. While Ringo Kidd would shoo such away, should it enter his story, Robinson has reached territory far more foreign, and makes good use of the help. Helgeland wisely draws controlled, mostly underplayed performances from newcomer Chadwick Boseman as Jackie and Nicole Beharie (CBS’s The Good Wife) as his wife. By mixing traditions, 42 entertains in spite of its conventions. This work marks Helgeland’s return to directing since the unfortunate misfire The Order (2003). 42 proves that this storyteller should direct as well as write.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and a contributor to the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film.