Inherently, the story of Jackie Robinson leaving the historic Negro League to join baseball’s major-league Brooklyn Dodgers (via a stop at its Montreal farm team) is fascinating any way you tell it. The real problem is that there are so many ways – the historical story, a baseball drama, the tale of a great man, a take on a great couple (Jackie and Rachel Robinson). Helgeland (L. A. Confidential’s co-scribe), who wrote the script as well as directed the film, took the gutsiest route: telling it as a socially conscious moral tale about the pervasive evil and sheer malevolence of segregation. Intellectually admirable, this is also the easiest path to failure.
In a way, it avoids making the story too complex and also too much a stark melodrama of heroes and villains. Instead, it tells a very human story of an extraordinary man in outrageous and exaggerated circumstances. There are villains – a number of them – but the greatest evil is a societal texture, a series of laws and attitudes by which it is condoned that one race discriminates against another.
Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Beharie as Rachel Robinson both deliver terrific performances, and the cast of managers and ballplayers – some sympathetic, some indifferent, and any number aggressively racist – are excellent. Harrison Ford plays Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey as a larger-than-life eccentric, seeming almost like a demented Orville Redenbacher at times.
The justified complaint against the movie is that it doesn’t breathe or come to life. In earnestly telling the story of segregation, and then segregation broken, 42 is so steadfastly determined to get at political realities that it loses the human and sports element. These are accurate complaints, but the film transcends them. Only if you believe that the story of segregation is too widely known and too often told does this film fail, but that is a belief both naive and shallow. Yes, it is an overly sincere history lesson even more than a paint-by-numbers biography, but it’s a history lesson of which we regularly need to be reminded. Entertainingly, comprehensively, and in very human ways, that is what this film does.