42 stands somewhere between the dry, technical approach or Moneyball and the shameless pandering of The Blind Side. When I reviewed Moneyball, I gave it 5 stars, and Blind Side deserves 1 star or even lower. So I find the middle ground and give this one 2.5. It’s not particularly offensive, but it’s also fairly unimpressive and unabashedly cornball.
Yes, it’s another one of those films that mine America’s cruel and despicable past with race relations in order serve the white audience with a heaving helping of white guilt and the audience of color a cliché-ridden attempt at inspiration and self-empowerment. What makes it different and kind of more worthwhile than other films of its ilk is that Jackie Robinson’s story is definitely one worth telling.
At a time when Hollywood is desperate enough to dig deep for similar inspirational true stories about the evils of racism in sporting events that they stooped all the way down to making films about all-black swimming teams (Comedian Bill Burr has a great bit about this), it was quite a surprise that there hasn’t been a feature biopic about the first African-American baseball player in an all-white league since The Jackie Robinson Story in 1950, where Robinson actually played himself.
There was a TV movie produced in 1990 called The Court Martial of Jackie Robinson about, you guessed it, Robinson’s court martial before his baseball years, so that doesn’t really count.
42 is a glossy and emotional biopic starring a solemn and strong Chadwich Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford channeling his best Sam Elliot/Jimmy Stewart as Branch Rickey, the Scrooge McDuckish owner of Brooklyn Dodgers. His cartoonish performance completely clashes with the stoic deliveries of his cast mates but upon doing some research on the real larger-than-life Rickey, I found out he wasn’t really that far off with his depiction.
Besides, the screenplay by Brian Helgeland, who also directed, finds a way for the audience to gradually sympathize with this old coot who seems to want to racially integrate the sport simply because of financial reasons, perhaps not in the way the Greek root of the word "sympathy" is explained in the film, but it’s good enough.
Of course we are on Jackie’s side as soon as we lay eyes on him. Chadwich Boseman is a charismatic actor with lots of presence, and he brings whatever he can to the flat script. The racially powered sports biopic structure is strictly paint-by-numbers here. Of course there’s great backlash at first from white people to Jackie Robinson. You always need a white main character who stands by the African-American player’s side no matter what. A character the non-racist audience can relate to. Harrison Ford fits that bill.
Of course there are countless occasions of redneck police officers, spectators, team members and managers screaming "Get that n-word outta da field!" and "You don’t belong ‘ere boy!" Gradually, the team accepts Robinson, and so do the fans. But at least the road to acceptance is not paved with lazy pandering and some scenes ring truer than their counterparts in crap like The Blind Side.
For example, when a Dodgers player finally stands up to the bigot manager of the opposite team, we think that this will lead him to become instant friends with Robinson. But a couple of scenes later that same player fights Robinson because he’s upset that they can’t stay at their favorite hotel because of Robinson’s skin color. He still resents him and the road to change doesn’t end with a single act of kindness.
Of course to balance that out, there are many scenes visually pandering to the audience. The first one that sticks out is how obviously Helgeland peppers more white kids asking for Robinson’s autograph as he becomes more accepted and popular.
This is not necessarily a terrible sports film. It’s executed fairly competently and I must admit that the baseball scenes were edited with a fair amount of excitement. A more levelheaded biopic about Robinson that doesn’t have to belong in this tired style might have been a better film, but if it has to be a part of it, you can do a lot worse.