As you may recall 42 is one of the movies I was most looking forward to this year. As both a baseball fan and history buff, how could it not be? Jackie Robinson is one of the all time great players and his story is one of the most important in American history, not just baseball history but American history.
Given these two things I feel I could be forgiven that I hoped this movie would be great but unfortunately it isn’t. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s actually a good movie but it’s also not exemplary. Other than being about Jackie Robinson there’s nothing that really sets it apart from any other “underdog/outsider makes good” sports story.
Like I say, that’s not a problem per se however it is kind of disappointing. There are a lot of things about 42 that are great though, so let’s talk about them.
First, the story is tight. It focusses on Robinson’s first season and not his whole career. This is a good thing because he ended up playing for a long time and eventually won a world series in 1955 a full 8 years after he debuted. There is a lot to explore but keeping the movie to his first major league season keeps the story more focussed and honestly, these sports movies always have 2 minutes of footnotes at the end about where the characters ended up and the World Series fact works as one of those given that his first season was by far his most important.
If I have complaints about the story they are first that the film, admittedly likely out of necessity glosses over how Branch Rickey chose Jackie Robinson ignoring basically all of the scouting and selection process (save seeing Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson’s names of a board at one point). It likely would have made the movie too long, but I still would have liked to see some more of the “who do we choose” stuff than just the one scene we get.
Second, it’s pretty much entirely predictable. To be fair, it’s a true story that I know, but also it’s an “underdog/outside makes good” sports movie, there’s a pattern to these things. Everyone is uncomfortable or doesn’t know what to think at the start. Antagonists say things like “you’ll never make it” and “you don’t belong here” and eventually he wins over most everyone and wins the day.
As an extension of this, while the film does actually very well with lot of these tropes it also does pretty poorly with others and the film is peppered with scenes that feel like they’re right out of a lifetime movie of the week that just scream “LOOK AT HOW BAD RACISM WAS AND HOW AWFUL PEOPLE WERE”.
Where the movie does shine greatly is in it’s supporting cast. Chadwick Boseman is good as Robinson but Harrison Ford is great as Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers determined to integrate baseball. Ford is a great actor and it’s nice to see him remembering that for a change instead of just playing a grumpy old man. Oscar worthy? I’m not sure, but it’s certainly the type of role that the academy loves.
The other standouts for me are Christopher Meloni as Leo “Nice Guys Finish Last” Durocher, the manager of the Dodgers famous for telling the team if they didn’t like Robinson they would be missed, and also Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman (manager of the Phillies) who famously opposed Jackie Robinson’s presence. There are a string of scenes where Tudyk has to yell a string of racial epithets that, were it myself in his place, I think would have made me sick as soon as the camera stopped rolling and as a member of the audience made me legitimately uncomfortable.
So to repeat myself, 42 is a good movie but not a great one. If you like sports even a little you should probably see it. If you don’t like sports you could certainly do worse (Scary Movie 5 is out, for example). I only wish that it were a great movie instead of just a good one.