Jackie Robinson has long been an elusive presence in contemporary American cinema, as filmmakers from Robert Redford to Spike Lee have tried and failed to bring his life story to the screen. Brian Helgeland has finally succeeded in “42,” a stirring, straightforward and ultimately soaring portrayal of Robinson’s historic entry into Major League Baseball in 1947.
Anchored by a solemn, quietly compelling lead performance from Howard University graduate Chadwick Boseman, “42” possesses the solid bones, honeyed light and transporting moral uplift that define an instant classic. With luck, audiences will treat it as such, and flock to it in numbers that encourage Hollywood to keep making ’em like this.
“42” begins in 1945, when Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides to integrate the team. Insisting to his nervous associates that dollars aren’t black or white, only green, Rickey begins scouting for a player who not only will help the team win, but also has the character to withstand the backlash that will ensue.
He settles on Robinson, a gifted athlete from California with an impressive record in the Negro leagues. When Robinson asks Rickey if he’s looking for a player without the guts to fight back, Rickey famously replies that he’s looking for “a player with the guts not to fight back.”
Harrison plays Rickey with a jutting jaw, squinting eye and hoarse bark straight out of the Irascible Old Coot playbook, his character constantly invoking God and the almighty dollar to justify what became known as Rickey’s “noble experiment.” Late in the movie — which mostly confines itself to 1946, when Robinson played for the Montreal Royals, and 1947, his first season with the Dodgers — Rickey admits to Robinson that he was seeking to redeem his own silence at the injustice of the game’s color line. “You let me love baseball again,” Rickey says with a gruff choke in his voice.
For his part, Robinson remains silent, a frustrating leitmotif throughout “42.” Indeed, the character proves to be a curiously recessive figure, less a psychologically complex hero than a screen for others’ projections — idealism and hope on the part of African Americans, anxiety and hostility on the part of his teammates and virulent, potentially violent animus on the part of his opponents and their fans — which he endures with stoicism that borders on the saintly.
Some have speculated that Robinson’s restraint in the face of the harassment he suffered contributed to his early death in 1972. But little of that psychic turmoil is portrayed in “42,” which clearly aspires to mythology rather than a more complicated, naturalistic character study.
That’s not to say that “42” is strictly feel-good. The film is suffused with the casual racism of the era, especially when Robinson is traveling through the Jim Crow South (Helgeland lards his script with sly references to “cultural heritage” and “way of life” that strike timely notes in an era of Brad Paisley and “Accidental Racist”). But the worst comes from the nominally integrated North, specifically Philadelphia and Phillies Manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), whose vile stream of epithets during a game winds up rallying the Dodgers team and the crowd to the side of Robinson, who withstands the abuse with level-eyed, square-jawed forbearance.
Robinson breaks down out of sight, under the bleachers, but other than a few wry exchanges with his wife, Rachel (the lovely Nicole Beharie), and a monologue addressed to his newborn son, we don’t get much of a sense of his interior life. Instead, “42” captures Robinson as a character whose meaning and power is primarily existential. It was his very being around which the vortex swirled — a vortex of defiance, pride, pathological racism and, finally, awe.
Helgeland enlisted a marvelous ensemble to bring that swirl to life, beginning with Boseman, who infuses Robinson’s taciturn self-containment with watchful charisma and skillfully re-creates his signature skittering, crablike dance off the bases. Some of the finest sequences in “42” are when Robinson craftily steals bases out from under his most hateful detractors.
Such real-life supporting characters as journalist Wendell Smith, game announcer Red Barber and Dodgers Manager Leo Durocher are portrayed in often funny, note-perfect turns by Andre Holland, John McGinley and Chris Meloni — who regrettably disappears after Durocher is suspended over his affair with a married actress.
Filmed with the gauzy, nostalgic light of an American summer and insistently underlined by Mark Isham’s overwrought, Copland-esque orchestral score, “42” is unapologetically corny, but it never succumbs to offensive condescension. And a certain amount of old-fashioned sentiment is altogether appropriate for a movie in which composure, professionalism and finesse manage to overcome far more destructive, irrational forces.
The film boasts particularly good sound design, with every crack of the bat and thwack of the mitt emphasizing the ballistic hardness of a ball that, in Robinson’s case, was often launched as a weapon. At one point, Helgeland allows “The Star-Spangled Banner” to play in its entirety, pointing up the irony of the line “land of the free” by coming to rest on Robinson’s tense, wary face.
Like that one, the film’s most gratifying sequences are on the field, when Robinson is silencing his critics with the sheer beauty and athleticism of his playing, and when his teammates — who early in his career petitioned to have him removed — can be seen gradually coming around, as if waking from a particularly toxic trance. By the time Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) famously puts his arm around Robinson during a game in Cincinnati, “42” has taken on cumulative, undeniable momentum, not just as classically rousing entertainment but as a quintessential story of American aspiration.
Thanks to transitional figures like Robinson, we’ve always been the home of the brave. To be the land of the free, the film suggests, we all need to step up to the plate.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains thematic elements, including racial epithets and profanity. 127 minutes.