Brian Helgeland’s “42” is an old-fashioned film in the most modern sense of the term.
Even as it embraces big-screen storytelling that takes us back to a golden era of history, it gives uplift without ignoring the pain and sacrifice that went into the achievements being depicted.
This story of Jackie Robinson’s first two years in white baseball – including his history-making, barrier-breaking debut season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 – recaptures not just Robinson’s achievement but the brutal obstacles he faced, both physical and psychological, not to mention verbal to a disgusting degree.
In telling Robinson’s story, Helgeland doesn’t dwell on the endless barrage of racist bile that Robinson (and his wife) endured, but he doesn’t shy from it either. As a result, Robinson’s achievement takes on more meaning and more power.
Helgeland also wisely divides his focus between Robinson (played with charismatic restraint by Chadwick Boseman), Rachel Robinson (a smart and cogent Nicole Beharie) and Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford channeling Lionel Barrymore). Each of these individuals plays a major role, but there is a synergy and an interdependence that gives the characters more meaning, to each other and to the audience.
For good measure, the script includes Wendell Smith, referred to by some as the Jackie Robinson of sportswriters. A writer for one of the most influential black newspapers of the time, Smith recommended Robinson to Rickey and became companion to the Robinsons during his 1946 season with minor-league Montreal and his 1947 debut in Brooklyn. Andre Holland gives him a brash, protective quality, playing Smith as someone who understands what Robinson means long before Robinson does.
Helgeland establishes early on that the world whose barrier Robinson broke had the same attitudes toward race 65 years ago that are still being evinced against gay marriage today.
This review continues on my website.