There will be some spoilers below. As a historical film, there’s nothing major to spoil; nonetheless, consider yourself warned.
I love baseball. I grew up watching baseball, attend games every season, and even play a little bit. Films like Field of Dreams and The Sandlot are among my favorites. So it’s understandable that when 42, a movie about one of the the most important figures in baseball history, comes around I get a little excited.
The long and short of it is that 42 just isn’t that good. There’s nothing exactly broken here, but it doesn’t do much that’s very right either. There’s no life to the film, a very limited plot arc, and surprisingly little drama. It feels like something that was churned out of a machine.
A quick rundown of the plot for those unfamiliar: The film presents the story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player in Major League Baseball, who debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The story picks up a year or two before that event, and we see Robinson get signed by Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford), spend a year in the minors, and then come up to the Dodgers. This is, of course, pre-civil rights movement America, so Robinson and those close to him face all kinds of prejudice along the way.
The film comes to us via writer/director Brian Helgeland, who wrote and directed Payback and A Knight’s Tale around the turn of the century, but is perhaps best known as the writer of Mystic River. And despite the middling reviews of more recent films he’s penned (such as Robin Hood, Green Zone, and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3) you’d like to think that pedigree at least ensures a decent script. But the storyline is riddled with fairly serious annoyances. Jackie Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, is of course our protagonist, and we see a fair part of the action from the eyes of Ford’s Rickey as well, but the film has an odd habit of diverting to little side stories. We see a little black boy and his mother go to see Jackie play one of his first minor league games, and the boy delivers some truly cringe-worthy dialogue. He even crops up for a moment later on as Robinson boards a train. Further along, another little boy (this one white) is featured, uneasily falling in with his father and hurling racial epithets at Jackie.
I get that the film is trying to highlight Robinson’s impact on the public and cultural landscape, but apart from these bits some of the worst parts of the film, they (and those like them) muddle the focus of the entire narrative. The film failed in getting me to personally invest in any of the action in large part because it never seems that sure of what it wants to be. Several things could have worked. It could have been a deep introspection of Jackie Robinson the man. It could have been an exploration of the cultural ripples from Robinson breaking the color barrier. It could have been about Branch Rickey and his high society issues getting Robinson into the league and keeping him there. But the film tries to do a little bit of everything and it never succeeds at any of it. The boys, for example, make Jackie Robinson a distant character, a god on high who can barely be approached. Which of course harms our ability to draw near and understand Robinson’s psyche. There’s a scene where, after enduring a near-unbearable succession of racial slurs from the opposing manager Robinson retreats to the dugout tunnel and breaks his bat over the walls in fury. It’s a breakdown that should be emotionally poignant, but it’s not. We never had a montage of the mounds of abuse Robinson bore game in and game out from every team he faced. We barely had a taste of the way people threw at him or slid at him spikes high. When he breaks down in the film, it feels like it’s the result of one man’s taunting, not the weight of the world crashing down.
And here, perhaps, would be a good place to talk about how the film handles race. Essentially, it assumes the audience has no concept of race relations in the 1940s, and it goes out of its way to say, “See? There was segregation. And people were racist.” None of it feels genuine. For a counterexample, look at a movie like Remember the Titans. Also a sports movie, also with racial reconciliation as a major theme. Instead of telling us that race is a big deal and and a daily reality, Remember the Titans shows us through specific interactions among characters we get to know and care about. 42, I suppose, tries to do the same, but watching Robinson and his wife talk about the presence of white only bathrooms isn’t quite the same as watching teammates, both white and black, be refused service. We come to understand racial tensions in Remember the Titans specifically because we do care about the characters, both black and white.
In terms of performances, Boseman does a pretty good job as Robinson, although as mentioned he’s never given quite enough to work with. We stay too distant from Robinson personally to really test Boseman’s acting chops. The bigger disappointment is Harrison Ford, who never looks comfortable in his role. Maybe it’s just because it’s Ford (in which case casting might be to blame), but he never because Rickey to me. I was always aware of Ford acting. Oh, and side note: if you do go see the film, be on the lookout for his fake eyebrows.
And that brings us to some of the more technical aspects of the film. The theme that should be emerging here is that the entire work feels a bit haphazard, and the cinematography, editing, and soundtrack to nothing to assuage this problem. There are some pretty shots here and there, but similar to the way the film attacks race relations, they feel staged, put on display for us without truly becoming a fabric of the film. This is particularly the case because the rest of the cinematography appears very unintentioned. There’s a marked difference between a shot that’s composed and a camera aimed at a scene, and you can feel the difference even if you don’t recognize what’s causing it. It seems like the editing tries to make up for this, but it doesn’t have enough material to work with. In multiple scenes it was readily apparent that there was little thought or purpose to the cuts being made, and I found myself wondering if it was poor editing, or if it was all the editors had to work with. Then there’s the soundtrack. The film is nothing if not overly sentimental, and the soundtrack carries this flaw in spades. The exciting, tense music of the trailer is nowhere to be found. I remember nothing but faux strings trying (and failing) to play at my heart throughout the whole. Entire. Movie.
The Verdict: 4 out of 10 (Concept: 2/5, Execution: 2/5)* <– See note below on the new scoring system
Look, as I said at the top, there’s nothing broken in 42. On a basic level it’s competently executed, and that’s why it eeks out a 2 on the execution scale. But there is noting – nothing – it does particularly well either in conception or in execution. This is a very disappointing film. Robinson was great for both what he did on the field and his historical significance. He deserved a film that reflected that, but instead got this: an overly sentimental, disjointed film that would have never broken past “A” ball.
* – Starting with this review, timandhisthoughts will be employing a new scoring system. Film criticism really requires two interrelated evaluations: did the film execute on what it set out to do, and was that goal a good one? Thus, there is now a system that reflects that. This will hopefully not only make my reviews better, but allow you the reader to make better use of my reviews. For example, I’m not crazy about most horror films. Objectively, I can score execution high (say, 4/5), but I might not think much of the concept (1/5). If you’re a horror buff, you might see a ringing endorsement in that 5 out of 10 total rather than just a middling movie. So going forward, that’s how it’s going to be.