The new biopic, “42,” tells the heroic story of how Jackie Robinson overcame hatred and bigotry to become the first African American to play in the professional baseball league. It is an inspiring story and a pretty good movie. The problem is that the movie never forgets that it’s trying to inspire, so the film comes across as a bit too mythologized to work as a serious drama.
Newcomer Chadwick Boseman does a solid job playing Robinson. We see him rise from the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League to a Triple-A Montreal farm club to his first season in pro baseball, playing for the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. Along the way we also see the difficulties that Robinson had to confront. He somehow survives the hostile fans, protesting teammates and one particularly nasty manager, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) who unleashes a shocking tirade of vitriol every time number 42 takes to the field.
This is all the stuff of legend, which means that you probably know the story by now. If there’s anything new, it’s the addition of General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) who sought out Robinson to break the color barrier. It’s unclear if he was motivated by a desire for equality or a desire to make money, but he was the one part of “42” that didn’t seem to have been copied straight out of a history book.
There’s nothing wrong with making a movie about such a legendary figure in American sports and civil rights. It’s certainly hard to argue with a film that has such an uplifting message, and heaven knows that a new generation of moviegoers might not be as familiar with Robinson’s story as those of us who are a bit older. On a purely technical basis, “42” is a well done sports biopic. It’s rousing and aspirational, but it’s not quite the home run that it could have been.
Jackie Robinson remains a private man as “42” doesn’t ever really get underneath his legendary accomplishments. We get to see the facts, but not the feelings that drove Robinson. It’s far too sanitized for a legitimate drama, almost as if the producers were afraid that by making Robinson into a real-life man, they would somehow tarnish his iconic stature.
The bottom line is that sports movies work best as simple underdog tales, where the hero wins the big game in the final moments and everybody leaves the theater cheering and happy. Jackie Robinson’s story is far too complex to fit into that simple sports flick plot structure. The end result is a film that works well as a rose-hued biopic with great period design and solid performances. It’s just not the warts-and-all biography that would truly reveal such a legendary figure as Jackie Robinson.
Movie reviews by Sean, “The Movie Guy,” are published bi-weekly in “The Port Arthur News” and seen weekly on KFDM-TV and KBOI 2-TV. Sean welcomes your comments via email at email@example.com.