Unlike Jackie Robinson’s daring base-running style, the new film “42” takes few risks with the storyline of his life’s pivotal moment.
That’s because it doesn’t have to; the legends and well-known incidents surrounding Robinson’s historic step across professional baseball’s color line are compelling enough, without Hollywood embellishment.
The tale starts slowly, like a pitcher called from the bullpen too quickly, as crafty Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey (played with accuracy by Harrison Ford) slowly reveals his plan to introduce an African-American player into the majors in 1945. But once the seething racism of post-World War II America explodes on the screen after Rickey chooses Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and elevates him from the Dodgers’ top farm club to the bigs at the outset of the 1947 season, the movie hits its stride.
The brutal on-field taunting by opposing Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) pierces the stoic demeanor Rickey demanded from Robinson. Chapman’s string of racial slurs effectively wounds and infuriates the viewer, too.
At the Indiana screening of “42” Wednesday night in Indianapolis, the packed theater erupted in applause during the closing credits when Chapman’s fate – he was fired and ousted from the game – was revealed.
Boseman gives a spot-on delivery of Robinson’s amazing ability to resist fighting back against bean balls, cleatings and blatant prejudice, as well as the young ballplayer’s difficult adjustment to being the center of both hate and adoration from people in every city the Dodgers visit, including Brooklyn.
The careful screenplay, by Brian Helgeland, hits the strike zone by managing golden moments of humor as Robinson and his teammates experience awkward moments of learning and enlightenment. Nicole Beharie (portraying Rachel Robinson) shines, showing her determination and refusal to accept the Jim Crow attitudes.
On a bus ride following a nasty road series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rachel leans her head on Jackie’s shoulder and tells him, “If they knew you, they would be ashamed.”
“42” masterfully lets 21st-century Americans know Jackie Robinson and the painful, lonely burden he shouldered.
The film opens nationwide on Friday.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.