Despite largely positive reviews, 42, this past summer’s biopic about the legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson, is beautifully-shot but difficult to watch. Simply with the subject matter, the film had so much potential and then squandered it by playing too safe. Richard Roeper calls 42 “a competent but mostly unexceptional film about a most extraordinary man.” And it’s all too true. Jackie Robinson risked his personal happiness and his life to break the racial barrier in Major League Baseball. This film about his life risks almost nothing.
It’s an understandable approach. After all, when dealing with real-life heroes, it’s easy to be starstruck. But as Roeper continues, the movie is often so admiring and respectful that “we sometimes feel as if we’re watching a history lecture.” Which is a nice way of saying that the movie lacks grit. For a time period that was often violent and polarized by Jim Crow laws, where lynch mobs reigned and “Whites Only” signs prevailed, the movie’s depiction is saturated with gorgeously-shot nostalgia. In fact, the filmmakers seem to actually miss this time-gone-by. Ironic, considering the movie’s entire central focus is racism. By softening the period’s edges, they’ve made the obstacles standing in Robinson’s (played by Chadwick Boseman) way seem less substantial.
That contradiction does nothing for the movie’s central conflict. Of which, really, there isn’t one. There is no specific goal. Is it for the Dodgers to win the pennant, as the supposed-climax suggests? If so, there wasn’t enough set-up for this payoff (a yawn-worthy slow-motion run around the bases). Is it for Robinson to be accepted by his teammates? By his fans? Because if so, we don’t see a specific enough moment to key us in that this has finally happened.
42 suffers from a lack of focus. In fact, the movie feels more like a laundry list of “all the times Jackie Robinson encountered racism” instead of a portrayal of a real-life hero. And every time he does, Branch Rickley, the Major League Baseball executive who recruited Robinson, (played by Harrison Ford) limps from out of frame and gives him a pep talk, slaps on a band aid, and all is well again for the next go-around.
When we compare this movie to the 2000 Disney film, Remember the Titans, which deals with similar subject matter about a high school football team in Virginia struggling to overcome racial boundaries in order to win the state championship, 42 seems bland. Perhaps 42’s biggest problem is that it fears putting any of the characters, all based on real people, in a negative light. What the filmmakers are forgetting is that no one starts out being perfect. Remember the Titans worried less about making their characters seem racist, as it did worry about making sure they had a journey with a long way to go: from seeing each other as separated by race to seeing each other as teammates and brothers.
In 42, we hardly get access to Robinson’s teammates. Only on occasion, but surely not enough to establish any of them as main characters. They’re more a backdrop against which Robinson’s character is posed. Instead of developing these hard-won friendships fully, we’re treated to scene after loving scene between Robinson and his wife. Well-acted and intentioned as these are, there is simply no conflict between the two. It’s a portrait of them as a perfect couple, and does little to further the story. It’s the same beat playing on repeat; one would have sufficed. All of this is a waste of a brilliant cast. Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman are convincing and charismatic as their respective real-life legends. They’re a treat to watch and, most certainly, the best part of the movie. Unfortunately, conflict-wise, these talented actors are just given too little to work with.
Though a beautiful and reverent film about one of the most famous baseball players of all time, 42 ultimately suffers from being cautious. No bases are stolen, and no imaginations either.