Critics Corner: 42

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Critics Corner: 42
Apr 15, 2013

It’s hard to think of a person, much less a sports figure, more deserving of a biopic than Jackie Robinson. The man was a study in bravery and courage, and played an instrumental role in not only the end of segregation in baseball, but in the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. It is because of the magnitude of his character that 42 is such a disappointment, and perhaps the starkest example of why we need African American directors and writers telling African American stories.

42‘s quality is not the reason it’s a disappointment – it is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. Director/writer Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale, Payback) is capable in his shot selection, and the film has perhaps the best shooting of baseball sequences this side of a Dick’s Sporting Goods commercial. Helgeland manages to capture the authentic feel of 1940s baseball, and the historical research and attention to detail is apparent.

The strength of the film, by far, lies in the cast. Harrison Ford gives a truly inspired performance as Branch Rickey, and it’s one of the few times we’ve seen Ford step out of, well, playing Harrison Ford. Christopher Meloni nails the fiery personality of Leo Durocher, and Alan Tudyk is gleefully contemptible as Ben Chapman, Philadelphia’s racist manager.

The real stars of the show, thankfully, are Nicole Beharie and Chadwick Boseman, as Rachel and Jackie Robinson. Beharie imbues a warmth into Rachel that corresponds with the thousands of wonderful stories told about her in the years since. Boseman, putting it simply, is perfect as Jackie – balancing tough and gentle with a real sense of heart in the character. Surprisingly, he’s even able to work some physical comedy into the role as he dances on the basepaths.

Helgeland worked primarily as a scriptwriter before moving into directing (he’s best known for penning the screenplay of L.A. Confidential), but the writing in 42 often borderlines on awful. In particular, the appearance of a small child, who may as well be named Exposition, is dreadful – he serves to tell the audience the importance of Jackie to the African American community (as it appears Helgeland has no idea how to do that otherwise).

The score is one of the worst in recent memory, and John Williams imitator Mark Isham (who, yes, did the score for Crash) manages to turn numerous scenes into nearly unpalatable schmaltz, all by himself. An ending sequence with extended slow-motion undercut by woozingly triumphant music is particularly groan-worthy.

The biggest problem with 42, however, is the focus of the film. For the first 30 minutes, Helgeland rightly focuses on the Robinsons, noting their struggles – first in Alabama, then in Florida during spring training. Once the film gets out of spring training and Robinson makes the team, however, the focus shifts.

Instead of a Jackie Robinson biopic, 42 turns into a film about Branch Rickey, Pee Wee Reese, and the other white characters of the film. Granted, the depth afforded to characters like Rickey, Reese and Eddie Stanky is great – but 42 is a film that desperately needs to be about Jackie Robinson, through and through. Instead, it turns into a film about the white people who either allowed him to play or tried to prevent it. Jackie’s courage is the subtext of 42, and it absolutely needs to be at the forefront. Helgeland’s intentions are good, but his attentions are not.

This problem exists not only on the moral level, but on a more simple formal one as well – Boseman and Beharie are the heart and soul of the film, and it’s tangible how much better 42 is when they’re on screen. For the last 75 minutes, you see a growing number of white faces speaking, as Jackie and Rachel get unfortunately pushed to the background.

42 is a fine baseball film, and a passable biopic as well. The problem lies at the level of the topic and the director – Jackie Robinson’s story is so great, and so truly inspiring, that you need someone willing to focus on him to tell it. Brian Helgeland has a good baseball film in him. This is not that film.

C.

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