Most of the movies labeled "Based on a true story" look contrived and overstated. But, Brian Helgeland's "42" (2013) -- stays true to the facts -- is an inspiring biopic that doesn't end up being hyperbolic. The movie records Jackie Robinson's life from 1945 to 47 -- the legendary baseball player, who broke the Major League color barrier in 1947. Robinson was the first African American to play major league baseball and he integrated America's pastime of baseball in the pre-Civil Rights era. Although, the movie takes a generic bio-pic structure, it remains as a soaring portrayal of a man who coasted above the insults, derision and death threats. The film's title "42" was the number on Robinson’s jersey, which was later retired throughout Major League Baseball.
Jim Crow laws and many local laws were enacted in USA between 1876 and 1965. The law dictated racial segregation in public facilities. The African Americans were degraded and given second class citizenship, especially in the south. Schools, public transportation, restaurants, restrooms and U.S. military are segregated. During the Second World War, African American fought for their country along with white counterparts to put an end to fascism, but they still couldn't escape from racism until the African American civil rights movement.
Jackie Robinson was court-martialed during World War II for refusing to sit at the back of a bus. He has steadily built all that rage inside him. The film starts in the office of Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), an idealist and a great businessman. He grasps an opportunity to make history by tapping the huge talent pool in the Leagues run by African Americans. Rickey turns out to be a highly principled man, although he tells his staff that the only color he cares about is green (strong and stable currency). Rickey wants a player, who has the talent to help the team win as well as a character to withstand the criticisms and insults that will ensue.
Rickey selects Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a great athletic baseball player with an impressive record in Negro leagues. Rickey insists Robinson to keep his temper at bay. When he asks “You want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” "No" replies Rickey, "I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.” Jackie shows a lot of restraint considering the bountiful of harassment: He was run off the field by a police man by saying that mixed-race baseball is against the law; Every time he enters the field, there is lot of booing and a Philadelphia redneck manager (Alan Tudyk) hurls outraging stream of N-words; The entire Dodgers was turned down by a hotel in Philadelphia, because of Robinson's skin color.
Chadwick Boseman has acted in lot of TV series, but this was his first major role in a feature film. He gives a effective performance, even though we see little of Robinson's psychic turmoil. Chadwick is very convincing on the field and at certain kind of emotions to give the legendary player an element of humanity. Harrison Ford, after a long time, gives an excellent performance as Rickey. Alan Tudyk is perfectly loathsome as Phillies manager and Nicole Beharie makes Rachel Robinson a “girl” that you might expect in this kind of movie. Lucas Black is impressive as Robinson's sympathetic teammate Pee Wee Reese and shares one of the movie's powerful scene with Ford.
Director Brian Helgeland has succeeded in bringing Robinson's life to the screen as many filmmakers from Robert Redford to Spike Lee have tried and failed. The direction isn't fresh or visionary. At the same time, the biopic isn't corny and never succumbs to offensive condescension. The baseball sequences are excellently staged -- not an easy thing for a sport that can comes off as boring on movies. The script doesn't shy away from truly ugly language of that period. The trouble with the script is, it doesn't do a good job of capturing Robinson's personality - he's more of an icon than a fully developed character.
I don't know the rules of a baseball game, but the sport, portrayed here, remains as a lens to look through a pivotal moment in American history. Essentially upbeat and inspiring, "42" can serve as an impressive introduction of one of the most important men in U.S. history.
42 -- IMDb