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Boseman hits a home run, the director, not so much: A review of “42” (2013)

In the legend of MLB’s (Major League Baseball) first Black player, writer, and director Brian Helgeland finds a crossroads for America. The country could have been either united across racial lines or torn apart by its racism, and baseball is what symbolically held the balance. Like other “based on a true story” films about racism, “42” is stuffed to the gills with lobbed racial slurs and sappy speeches seeking to inspire America to bury its collective hatchet. Its attempt to maintain an uneasy balance between this brutality and histrionic sentimentality for two hours reads like a rough slide to home base. However, many moments of dignity and joy make it worth running all four of its bases. 

As Chadwick Boseman delivers a grounded, human performance, a gaggle of tertiary personalities threatens to drown out the film’s focus. There are tons of scenes with Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) gruffly negotiating over Robinson’s upward advancement in the league. Many others feature white teammates laying bare their grievances over sharing a locker room with him. “42” feels overwhelmed by the business and logistics of breaking the color barrier where its heart should be in watching Robinson do it. The real act of protest is in every time he steps up to bat. In its overlong runtime, it could have lived with cutting out a bit of the “Moneyball” in its DNA and giving us a deeper look at its eponymous hero. 

But as that movie famously says, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” And it’s hard not to be when you actually see Robinson play. You get a couple of great home runs, but the joy of “42” is watching him steal bases. As the white pitcher winds up to throw, Robinson practically dances as he leads off. His fingers play an invisible piano in anticipation to see what the pitcher does. He turns the racism of his opponents against them, weaponizing their fear of being shown up by a Black player to snatch up bases from under their noses. It’s a simultaneous ode to Robinson’s skill and the revolutionary act of his playing in the league. And Boseman embodies Robinson’s love for baseball in every twitch of those excited fingers as he prepares to steal another base. 

However, Robinson’s character is truly tested in handling his justified anger. He’s told time and time again by Rickey that whatever happens, he can’t lose his cool on the field. No matter how many times he’s heckled, no matter what horrible things he’s called, and no matter how many threats are sent to him and his family, he can only fight back by playing the game well. “42” is a disheartening portrait of imbalanced immobility. His white teammates are allowed to yell back, spit back, and physically push back when someone tells Robinson that he doesn’t belong, but all Robison can do is swallow his rage. At one point, he enters the dugout and smashes a baseball bat against the wall while screaming his lungs out after the belligerent manager of the opposing team goads him into striking out. In this private moment, everything comes crashing down. He’s fighting so hard for his right to play, and the world is doing everything to deny him his dignity. 

Unfortunately, this moment of honest rage and frustration is undercut, as this film’s honesty often is, by saccharine music. “42” tries too hard to manipulate its audience with constant histrionic orchestral swells. Mark Isham’s soundtrack is glorious on its own, but its overwrought grandeur often oversteps in whatever scene it’s featured in. The film relinquishes the audience’s responsibility to respond with empathy. The music tells you when to tear up and when to nod in solidarity. The unfortunate result is a flattening of many of its more truthful elements. Though Boseman’s Robinson cuts through the forced sentimentality, André Holland’s quiet performance as Wendell Smith feels dwarfed by the grandiosity of what surrounds him. The script already struggles to give his character much to do; Smith is a Black sportswriter who serves as our narrator and as the  chronicler of  Robinson’s story. He feels detached from the meat of the dramatic action, which is given to Rickey and the racists he butts heads with, but offers a naturalistic dignity of his own as he watches closely from the sidelines. Holland knows that his character is handling an important story, where every word he types tells the story of someone changing the world. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give him the space to live out those stakes.

“42” is both unflinching and yet oversaturated by distractions. In presenting the legend of Jackie Robinson, it feels too enamored with “the legend” for it to accomplish what it sets out to do. The story of his herculean fight to play the game he loved is moving independent of how it’s presented. Whether it be in a big-budget movie or told through a crackly audio recording at an underfunded museum, Jackie Robinson still went through Hell for a fair chance to play baseball. “42” gives us this same inspiring story with all stops pulled; no logistical detail nor any screeched n-word is left out. And yet it shorts itself the opportunity to move beyond inspiration and simply allow its characters to live in their skins and be human in their love of the game. 

Rating: 3/5

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