In 1946, baseball impresario Branch Rickey (Ford) shocked a nation by enlisting a young, bewildered Jackie Robinson (Boseman) into his underperforming Brooklyn Dodgers squad and so introduced the first black player into Major League baseball. Facing torrents of racism, Robinson’s unyielding stand transformed the sport forever.
The title refers to his shirt number. As the postscript tells us, the only one ever to be retired from the game in honour of its bearer. That bearer was Jackie Robinson (newcomer Chadwick Boseman), whose elevation into baseball’s big leagues brought with it all the sickening bigotry a segregated era could, sometimes literally, throw at him. There could be no reprisals. No anger. He would always be the one blamed. As the Dodgers’ cunning owner, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), makes clear, jabbing at his new recruit to test his mettle, he wants a player “with the guts not to fight back”. Without the catalyst of Robinson’s defiance it is unlikely Obama would have made it to the White House.
In honour of his subject, Brian Helgeland has written and directed an unapologetically strait-laced biopic, sunlit and rich in the alluring rituals and mysteries of the game, but as simplistic, manipulative and undeniably rousing as the piped fanfare of a ballpark organ. Still the most readily mythologised of sports, baseball again takes its place as a metaphor for the ennoblement of America, the soundtrack soaring like a Kevin Costner playlist.
Yet each game represents not so much a sporting contest as the next trial by hatred Robinson will have to endure as he steps up to the plate. Fans torment him from the bleachers, death threats arrive by post, pitchers target his head, an opposing coach (Alan Tudyk) repeatedly taunts him from his dugout, and at one surreal point a police officer strides onto the field and threatens to arrest him if he doesn’t withdraw.
Rickey’s motivation for thrusting Robinson into the cauldron is one of the film’s key hooks. As Robinson keeps pressing, why have you done this? Is it merely the chance to capitalise on the coming cultural upheaval in America? Or some form of genuine, if intangible, decency? Plump, bespectacled and roaring God-fearing mutiny at anyone within earshot, Ford hasn’t enjoyed himself so much for years, creating an unforgettable mix of Daddy Warbucks, Pappy O’Daniel and Confucius. They’ve given Supporting Oscars for far less.
Inevitably, Robinson ends up a saint, but the situation demands it of him — to turn a stadium-sized cheek. He gets a devoted wife (Nicole Beharie), but no demons — he’s tough in the right way, on the field, expressing himself only when dancing between bases like he’s on hot coals, gleefully “discombobulating” his opponents. Boseman’s performance is a model of grace under unimaginable pressure, but Robinson remains an enigma. We are stirred by his achievements but never comprehend their cost.
Already a hit in America, 42 is a well-told but square biopic doing justice to Jackie Robinson rather than exploring him.
Reviewed by Ian Nathan