As a biopic 42 manages to leap the most challenging of hurdles for any film that seeks to quantify greatness in two hours or less. With the life of none other than Jackie Robinson at the heart of your chronicle, that effort could not be more difficult.
Director Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) has masterfully hit the notes that we need to hear to make the symphony that is Robinson’s life soundtrack as compelling, inspiring and powerful as it deserves.
It shows even in the 42 trailer that Helgeland scored brilliantly by casting Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the man who signed him to the Brooklyn Dodgers and not only broke the color barrier in baseball, but contributed to a civil rights revolution that paved the way for none other than the man currently sitting in the White House.
Boseman carries the weight two-fold. The pressure to effectively capture the life of a cultural icon must have been immense for the actor. Also, Boseman needed to convey the stress and the momentousness that was Robinson playing professional baseball with white players, while his brothers and sisters had to use separate bathrooms and entrances across the country.
The actor did that in droves in 42 and it provided an answer to the question permeating my head for some time: Why has it taken so long to put together a proper biographical film on one of the great Americans of our time? Fate sometimes makes you wait for the perfect individual to play that soul who is larger than life. Boseman is the right man at the right time with the right script to give the Robinson legacy its cinematic due.
Then, there’s the performance of Ford. Rickey is a man who is larger than life and Ford is no stranger to playing those characters… hello, Han Solo and Indiana Jones! But, the Dodgers GM is grounded in a reality that seems to be driven equally by civil rights and capitalism. The superstar actor wears a fat suit to capture Rickey’s girth, but it is his vocal tone and physical movement that valiantly fill the big screen.
Through witnessing 42, the audience can suppose that there would have never been a Robinson without Rickey, but more importantly -- there would never have been a Rickey… without Robinson.
Helgeland also wrote the screenplay for 42 and one can largely credit him with what to spotlight in his film, what to hint at, and what to not necessarily ignore, but choose to leave out of this particular movie biography.
I knew much about Robinson and his life and needed to see what the man went through physically and emotionally on and off the field as he was making history in a biopic.
There was the getting spiked by opponents’ cleats, the fastballs to the head, the racist chants from the visiting (and home crowds)… and even a blatant verbal racist assault by an opposing manager while Robinson stood at the plate trying to hit.
Oh, and lest not we forget the physical threats in every city the Dodgers visited.
Yet, Robinson handled it with grace, poise and the keen knowledge that this moment was bigger than him. And that is illustrated in every single moment of 42. That fact goes back to what filmmakers chose to show its audience from a life extraordinary. The movie chronicles the time just before and during that first historic season -- no more, no less.
And if there is a period that captured what is "Jackie Robinson"… well then… with 42, it’s all right there in full blazing color.