“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.