“42” has the feeling of a movie that was made for the ages, to be buried in a time capsule for the benefit of future civilizations. The film is ever aware of its need to be important, so it uses a lot of devices to convey the historical importance of its subject, baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson and the racial integration of the national pastime. Characters frequently address each other in formal, elaborate declarations, like the scripted public greetings of diplomats. Grand symphonic music swells to punctuate breakthrough moments. The end result is a movie that feels a bit like a museum piece, dusty and remote.
I sympathize with filmmaker Brian Helgeland. The story of the integration of baseball is a crucial chapter in American social history, and it’s important to get it right. It’s just as important, when making a movie about a sport as well documented and beloved by obsessives as baseball, to get the small things right.
The small things are well done. The old, heavy wool uniforms and caps look great. The old-timey buses seem old-timey. Chattanooga’s Engel Stadium makes a credible stand-in for demolished bandboxes of yore, like Ebbets Field, Shibe Park, and Forbes Field. But the old-fashioned hats worn by the stadium-goers all seem new. Grizzled sportswriters type on gleaming manual typewriters, almost glistening with enamel and oil and newness. The accouterments of the period seem like they were all polished and brought over from the prop room just moments before.
The scenes on the baseball diamond are as well done as just about any you’ll see. Baseball is never as ponderous and drawn out as it seems in movies. The baseball action in “42” is no exception. But Mr. Helgeland is reasonably scrupulous about showing the detail of actual games, and actor Chadwick Boseman does a very good job at capturing Jackie Robinson’s style of play his kinetic base-running and his lunging right-handed swing.
But there’s something distant and unknowable about the real Jackie Robinson, who subjected himself to grotesque abuse from teammates, fans, and rival players to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier. To his credit, Mr. Boseman plays Robinson as he was — a steely personality who was bowed but not broken by his experience. He keeps his true self on tight lockdown. In one affecting scene, he betrays how the torment is affecting him, and it’s probably the most human and most intense moment of the film. In order to make Robinson’s character more accessible, he’s shown several times exchanging lovey-dovey words with his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie).
Harrison Ford plays baseball executive Branch Rickey as a windy and sermonizing codger who wants to end segregation in baseball to make the sport he loves more fair and just. There’s a lot of truth to this portrait, but we don’t get as much of the baseball man as we do of the saint.
“42” is a well done biopic, but it doesn’t have that much new to say about Jackie Robinson and his legacy. It’s more like a passion play in which we watch the torments as pieces of a ritual, for the purpose of remembering an important story.
CREDITS: Written and directed by Brian Helgeland
RATING: PG-13 for profanity and racial epithets
RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS