The Jackie Robinson biopic 42 operates in a box inside of a box—and not the batter’s box, either, because that would imply it has some freedom to swing away. It’s thoroughly embalmed in the glossy lacquer of conventional baseball movies, and limited further by trying to deal with the horrors of racism in that context. Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, whose credits range from scripting L.A. Confidential to directing Payback and A Knight’s Tale, the film functions as a tribute to Robinson’s courage and dignity, and it’s often stirring in that capacity. But it approaches him more as legend than man, muting the truly dangerous and menacing circumstances under which Robinson broke the color barrier and excelled as a major-league ballplayer. No true Jackie Robinson biopic would be rated PG-13.
The casting helps. Wisely choosing to skip a more established name and find the right man for the part, the filmmakers found Chadwick Boseman, a TV and film bit player with an athlete’s frame and a quiet way of imposing his will that feels right. Robinson had to be sensitive to the politics surrounding his ascension, and Boseman projects the discipline necessary to do it without compromise. Harrison Ford, on the other hand, barks like a junkyard dog as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who broke the color barrier when he signed Robinson, then a star shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues, to play for the team in 1945. Robinson brings Rachel Isum (Nicole Beharie), his future wife, along with him as he develops with the Montreal Royals farm club before making the bigs in 1947.
There’s adversity: A gas attendant refuses to let Robinson and his Negro-league teammates use the non-colored bathroom, a Philadelphia hotel won’t allow him to stay overnight on a road trip, coaches and teammates shun him on the field and in the locker room, and fans festoon the Dodgers front office with hate mail and death threats. Then there’s the overcoming of adversity through Robinson’s inspired play, and his ability to transcend confrontations that would fell weaker men. It’s impossible not to be moved by Robinson’s story, even in the broad strokes painted by Helgeland here, but 42 feels like it’s ducking out of the conversation it’s purporting to start. It’s a post-racial movie about a racist world.