The life of Jackie Robinson may be an inspiration to many (and justifiably so), but if you believe Brian Helgeland’s aggressively uplifting biopic 42, Robinson’s life was nothing but inspiring. More a string of rousing speeches than a narrative, 42 effectively tugs on heartstrings, but it doesn’t create any well-rounded characters or go beyond a surface-level look at race relations in 1940s America, when Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) became the first African-American player in Major League Baseball.
Boseman is solid as Robinson, but other than one moment of anguish and rage, he’s presented as practically a saint—a calm, upstanding, righteous man who also happens to be an amazing baseball player. Even Robinson’s home life with wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) is picture-perfect, and she’s just as virtuous and wise as he is. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), whose decision to recruit Robinson broke the unspoken color barrier in baseball, gets a little more depth, but he remains mostly in Ford’s standard irascible-old-man mode.
Helgeland focuses almost exclusively on Robinson’s first season with the Dodgers, in 1947, and while that should allow for a more detailed exploration of events than a movie about Robinson’s entire life would, Helgeland still jumps from one significant moment to the next, without any real down time. This is the kind of movie in which a female character feels nauseous in one scene, and in the next scene is looking through a nursery window at her newborn baby.
The movie fares best on the field, when Helgeland can sublimate some of the heavy-handed racial-tension material into exciting game play. But there’s more grandstanding than ball-playing in 42, which works fine for preaching, but not nearly as well for storytelling.