Warner Bros. “42” is less than legendary

I really wanted to like “42”. The story of Jackie Robinson is a truly inspiring one about the fight against racism, a pivotal moment in sports history. Also, because parts of the movie were filmed in Macon, I felt obligated to like it out of loyalty.
On a surface level, I did enjoy the movie—but only as a movie. As a biopic, as a critique of the racist attitudes that existed then and persist now, and as a historically accurate piece, the movie fell far short of what it could have been.
The acting of the movie was fairly good throughout. The film was dominated by two strong performances: Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the team executive for the Brooklyn Dodgers; and Chadwick Boseman, who took the titular role as Jackie Robinson. Ford’s role carried the film as the driving force behind Robinson’s career in the major leagues, to the point where his role overshadowed Boseman’s Robinson. This isn’t to say that Boseman didn’t do a good job at channeling Robinson’s feats of restraint in the midst of heavy verbal and cultural abuse, but the part he was given did not give Boseman very much to work with. This leads into my biggest critique of the film: the writing failed the epic promise made by the legend it sought to capture.
Brian Helgeland’s script was heavy-handed and tried too hard to imbue every scene with a deep, gripping significance. Some of the scenes were actually very good: I would like to cite the scene in which Robinson finds out local men in the town he’s staying in intend to jump him, or the scene in which Rickey shows one of the other Dodgers the folders full of threatening letters that Robinson had received since he had started playing on white teams. Honestly, though, Helgeland tried too hard, and the attempt to make every scene epic made quite a few of the grand speeches feel thin and weak. There was very little levity in the movie. Harrison Ford delivered quite a few funny lines in Rickey’s warm growl, and there is one awkwardly humorous moment when one of the other Dodgers asks Robinson why he won’t shower with the rest of the team, but even those moments feel as if they are supposed to have some kind of great weight behind them. The audience just feels exhausted.
Most of the characters—including, to a degree, Robinson himself—were not very well developed. Racists were all unintelligent and had Southern accents, and none of Jackie’s teammates played enough of a role in the movie for the audience to even tell the individual players apart. You would think that if the movie was going to spend much of its time emphasizing how Rickey stood behind Robinson, it would also spend time highlighting the team that came to accept and support Robinson as well. This is not the case; teammates either do not change their attitudes toward Robinson or do abruptly. Also, the film attempted to incorporate into the film a young Ed Charles, who—as the concluding montage will inform the viewer—went on to win the World Series with the New York Mets. This was not well developed at all, and Charles’s character became a vehicle for explaining the rules of baseball in an over-the-top, Leave-it-to-Beaver delivery.
What troubled me most, though, was the film’s handling of racism. For one, as previously noted, it portrayed all of the people who were against Robinson’s joining white teams as snide antagonists, frowning bystanders or blatantly ignorant meatheads with Southern accents. This is an oversimplification of racism—and a dangerous one. As much as we would love to believe that racism is confined to “stupid” people, this isn’t true. There are highly intelligent, charismatic people who are racist. And there are quiet, sweet people who harbor racist tendencies. The film addressed the ugly face of racism, but not the rest of the body, and the rest of the body—the insidious, unexpected part—is the one we need to worry about.
Additionally, the film seemed to try to tell a success story of a national failing overcome. With the repeated line of “The world is changing,” Helgeland’s script argues that the world has moved past racism. This is simply not true, and a quick drive from Mercer to the movie theatre will confirm that there is still segregation and racism, even if it is not openly or legally supported.
As a movie, I give it a B. Decently acted, nice to look at and with all the typical feelings of triumph and camaraderie that come with most sports movies. But I was disappointed. For a film about a man who took an active stand against racism—not by retaliating on the ball field, but by his speeches, public appearances and advocacy—“42” falls far short of what its hero stood for.