Written PostCatching Up On 2013: Josh Reviews 42

Catching Up On 2013: Josh Reviews 42

As has become my habit in recent years, during the final few weeks of December and the first few weeks of January, before writing my Best of the Year lists, I try to catch up on as many of the films I wanted to see during the year but for whatever reason missed.  I’ll be posting my reviews of these films in a series of “Catching Up On 2013” posts, and of course I hope you enjoyed my Best Movies of 2013 list!

Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to ever play baseball in the Major Leagues.  (42 was, of course, the number that Jackie Robinson wore on his uniform.)  The film focuses on two seasons: 1947, Mr. Robinson’s first season playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the previous year, 1946, in which Mr. Robinson played for the Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals.

The film centers on Robinson’s struggle to overcome staggering racism from his teammates, other baseball players, many fans, and others.  It also focuses on the relationship and eventual friendship that formed between Robinson and the Dodgers’ gruff owner Branch Rickie, the man who chose to bring Jackie to the big leagues.

That relationship was my favorite aspect of the film, mostly because of a fantastic performance by Harrison Ford.  (And when was the last time I got excited about a Harrison Ford performance???  OK, just last week I wrote that I really loved Mr. Ford’s cameo in Anchorman 2, but that hardly counts.  I have argued before on this site that you need to go back twenty years, to 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, to find a really great Harrison Ford performance, and I stand by that.)  But somehow, Mr. Ford came alive in this role, really biting into the character of this curmudgeon with a heart of gold. It’s nice to see Harrison Ford, at 71 years of age, actually playing a character who is meant to come across as old.  Under a lot of makeup and with the crotchety voice that Mr. Ford puts on, Branch Rickie comes close to being a caricature, but the performance stays on the right side of that line and becomes, instead, a really fun character.

Chadwick Boseman does a fine job in the lead role of Jackie Robinson.  This is a very heroic depiction of Jackie, a and the film doesn’t really show us any flaws that the real Mr. Robinson might have had.  That limits, somewhat, the material that Mr. Boseman has to play, but nevertheless I thought he turned in a very strong performance that on the one hand lived up to this very heroic, noble presentation of Jackie, while also letting us see a human being underneath, one who smiles and jokes and loves and occasionally feels the burden of the hatred directed towards him as a black man.

I first came across Brian Helgeland’s name as the author of the screenplay for the magnificent film L.A. Confidential.  I adored that movie the moment I first saw it (back in 1997), and I love it still.  I have long been waiting for Mr. Helgeland to produce another film that could stand next to that one.  I haven’t been all that interested in the films that Mr. Helgeland has directed in the intervening years, though, nor have I been all that taken by his screenplay work (except for his screenplay for 2003’s Mystic River, which I thought was terrific).  42, which Mr. Helgeland both wrote and directed, is in my opinion the most interesting project he has worked on in a good long while.

42 is a fairly simplistic film, one that depicts Jackie Robinson as a hero through and through.  There aren’t many shades of grey in the film.  For the most part, there are good guys and bad guys and not much in between.  As I commented above, Mr. Robinson himself is presented very nobly, struggling valiantly to play through the racism and vitriol hurled against him.  There’s a part of me that wishes that 42 had allowed for a few more shades of grey, for a little bit more subtlety, for perhaps showing us some different sides of these characters.  On the other hand, this is such an important story, and there’s no question that what Jackie Robinson accomplished is worthy of tremendous praise.  So I suppose I can forgive such a heroic, no-flaws presentation of Jackie’s story.  This is a film aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, and while it might not be exactly what I would have wished for, there is no denying that it is an extremely well-made film that succeeds at what it was trying to accomplish.

My only real complaint is in regards to the film’s score, which I found to be just terrible.  I felt the music was way too on-the-nose time after time in the film.  Quiet emotional moments were scored with this over-wrought, rousing music that felt manipulative and quite out of place.  It really annoyed be at quite a few different points.  Oh well!

Mr. Helgeland’s film gives some nice time in the spotlight to several of the supporting characters.  Christopher Meloni is memorable as the Dodgers’ tough manager Leo Durocher (who is forced to step aside because of a scandal).  Alan Tudyk (Firefly) does a tremendous job playing a villain in his brief appearance as Ben Chapman, a manager who hurls the vilest insults imaginable at Jackie in an effort to rattle him.  I also really loved Scrubs’ John C. McGinley’s work as Red Barber, the Dodgers’ fast-talking radio announcer.  Nicole Beharie doesn’t have much to play as Jackie’s wife Rachel, but she does fine work succeeds in making Rachel an endearing character.

42 is a simple film, one that sets out to hold up Jackie Robinson as a true American hero.  I believe that’s exactly what he was, and as such I quite enjoyed this film’s story.  This isn’t the type of film to which I usually gravitate, but with some great baseball action, a compelling true-life story, and a great performance by Harrison Ford, I found more than enough to enjoy.