Verdict: Watch on cable
“Money isn’t black or white. Money is green.”
– Branch Rickey
There was a time in the early to mid-2000s when it seemed every underdog, sport related story you could think of was being adapted into a movie.
Some were about race relations, like “Remember the Titans” (2000) and”Pride” (2007), “Radio” (2003) was about mental illness and then there was the greatest underdog story of them all (for me), “Miracle,” in 2004.
Now a few years late, comes “42,” probably the most important sports story to be adapted to a film. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland (“A Knight’s Tale,” “L.A. Confidential”), “42” chronicles the trails faced by Jackie Robinson as he became the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1947 season.
I’m being completely honest when I say “42” is late to the party, feeling like a movie that should have come out 5 to 7 years ago in the wake of the success of “Remember the Titans” instead of 2013.
While it’s financed through Legendary Studios and distributed by Warner Brothers, if it weren’t for a surprising amount of curse words (some necessary, other not), I would have thought “42” was a Disney movie.
An opening montage narrated by Andre Holland’s newspaper-reporter character Wendell Smith gives exposition on the 1940s in the form of a bad documentary aimed at middle schoolers, we’re given a very rapid account of the events leading to Robinson joining the Dodgers organization in 1945. This was made possible by the general manager of Dodger’s, Branch Rickey, who is portrayed by Harrison Ford in his most engaging role in recent years that isn’t Indiana Jones.
While there are decent performances from the supporting cast, such as Disney Channel Original movie alum Ryan Merriman, the charming Nicole Beharie and Law & Order veteran Christopher Meloni, everyone’s performance is elevated when their in the same scene with Ford. This is even more clear with Chadwick Boseman, who plays Robinson.
One would surmise from the opening to the film that Wendell Smith, in his reporter role, would have been more involved in the telling of Robinson’s story. However, aside from about two or three scenes where he is seen with his typewriter, Smith is portrayed more as Robinson’s bodyguard instead of a journalist assigned to write about his exploits.
While it would be easy for any movie about race-based material to be preachy toward its audience, “42” barely backs away from that line by having Rickey remind us that while the treatment of non-whites in baseball was despicable, the sport is also a business and the decision to sign Robinson was based both in what was morally right but what was also beneficial to the Dodger’s bottom line.
Baseball has proven to be one of the more movie-friendly sports, but “42” never feels like it tries to really rise to the materials worth. Many sports movies have an endgame of a team winning a championship or a certain game while “42” is about Robinson gaining acceptance in baseball, which the film would have you believe is done in one season when Robinson leads the Dodgers to a division title. The only real tension in the movie is felt when you’re anticipating Robinson buckling under the scrutiny of the stadiums full of crowds jeering him.
While powerful moments are present in the film, from Rickey showing Pee Wee Reese cabinet drawers full of hate mail addressed to Robinson after Reese was worried after getting just one, to Rickey consoling Robinson in the dugout after the young-man lets all of his rage out, none of it comes together for one fluid narrative. Most of the last hour comes off as a drawn out montage.
Without a consistent narrative voice, “42” doesn’t have the drive seen in “Remember the Titans” or baseball films such as “For the Love of the Game” or “A League of their Own.”