42’s Brian Helgeland, director and writer of the film, does nothing short of what was expected with the story of Jackie Robinson. The film tells the story of Robinson’s journey into major league baseball in 1940’s America.
42 is done in the tradition of the American hero biopic. Slow pans over scenery. A script with a trail of seemingly unending one-liners. A feeling of being smothered by an America flag. Yes, freedom. Helgeland’s story does often feel like it’s all too aware of it’s historical relevance. You almost hear this film whispering to itself, “I am a biopic of an American legend.” Yes, it was a little cheesy at times. You got the feeling that you were hearing a script for much of the movie, rather than hearing natural dialogue. The thing about depicting historical events is that they are made worthy of depiction by their very uniqueness, making it unnecessary to saturate the dialogue with pithy one-liners. As the writing went, the film always felt very much on paper, a failure on Helgeland’s part.
You couldn’t help but feel for Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played Robinson. Not only because he was brilliantly
playing the role of a man who withstood the vitriol of human hatred in his quest to become a major league baseball player, no. But because Helgeland’s script only allowed him so much room to shine. However, he did, in an ironic testament to the ability of a black man to beat the odds against him Boseman’s performance was the most believable aspect of the film. Alongside Boseman was actress Nicole Beharie, who played Robinson’s wife, Rachel Robinson. Though her screen time was rather limited, Beharie emitted a light that spread across the entire film, to the point that you almost felt her heart beating with Boseman’s. Their on screen chemistry was of the more endearing aspects of the film.
As expected Harrison Ford performed. He perhaps meshed best with Helgeland’s script, for his character Branch Rickey, the Major League Baseball exec that introduced Robinson to the major leagues, fits quite naturally into the narrative that Helgeland seemed to be trying to construct. For some, the many tight shots of Ford delivering some clever or inspirational line may have come welcomed. For my part, I wished, but knew better than to expect, that the film did not so willfully shift the lens from Robinson’s personal journey to the supposed goodness of his white co-stars. Something missing from this film, other than a realistically written script, was a closer focus on Robinson as a hero for black America. The film follows a young black child, who we later find out goes onto be a major league player himself, but that connected needed to be stretched to the black communities in the time. The film suffered for not spending more time developing black characters, because American hero or not, Jackie Robinson is a hero to black Americans first. But this is to be expected, when the story is being told from a white man’s perspective. His treatment of race otherwise was better than I expected, and altogether very powerful in particular moments, due mostly to the talents of Boseman.
Certain stories ought to be told. In all of it’s imperfections, 42 tells the story of an American hero, and for posterity’s sake, this film does its job.