Rounding third and heading for home, the new Jackie Robinson biopic, “42,” hit it out of the park, making a whopping $27 million at the box-office in its first weekend. The film put a damper on the fifth installment of the tired and unimaginative “Scary Movie” franchise, which did not click with audiences and fell to second place. The week belonged to “42” both on the field, and at the box office. This Monday, April 15, marked the annual celebration of Robinson and his lasting mark on the MLB. Every member of the Brooklyn Dodgers sports Robinson’s legendary number on their uniforms as part of the tribute. The timing of the film’s release was on point, gathering baseball fanatics to celebrate the icon’s towering legacy.
Did the film live up to the man? Mostly.
“42” only adequately portrays the story of Robinson; it never quite claims the status of “Best Baseball Biopic,” though you can tell it is trying. Ultimately, it plays out too much like a made-for-television film. However, it does get a lot right in the process.
The film boasts an extremely pleasing and dedicated performance by newcomer Chadwick Boseman. Boseman has, up until recently, only starred in television shows like Fox’s “Fringe” and FX’s “Justified.” As the most welcoming addition to the cast, Boseman exhibits a performance worthy of accolades and praise that, in turn, lives up to Robinson’s name. His charm and on-screen charisma help pull the film through its wandering moments.
“42” displays some of the struggles Robinson had to withstand while pursuing the pennant alongside The Dodgers. In more than one scenario, we see Robinson being taunted by racists’ opinions. In these scenes, Boseman deeply channels Robinson’s conflicted restraint while having to tolerate an earful of racial slurs. At this point, the audience has become enamored with Jackie as an individual and his struggles become agonizingly difficult to process. Robinson is even subjected to hearing harsh racial language thrown at him during a game against our own Phillies! Philadelphia manager, Ben Chapman, played by Alan Tudyk, becomes harrowing to endure. Like Robinson, the audience will feel restless after being exposed to Chapman’s consistently crude behavior. Luckily, this leads to a much-justified situation where Chapman is referred to as a “Redneck piece of…”
The script, produced by writer and director Brian Helgeland, is nearly flawless. In the past, Helgeland penned some of the silver screen’s most acclaimed films. Both “L.A Confidential” and “Mystic River” stand as two of his most renowned scripts. His work with “42” is no different. Any dispute over the quality of the film can hardly be applied to the writing. Aside from the journalist, Wendell Smith, who disappears from a leading role to a secondary character halfway through the picture, the plot is all top-notch. Smith’s opening narration bestowed a weighty presence before disappearing for the the remaining runtime.
Another strong attribute is the film’s impressive replication of the time period-particularly the faithfully rendered Ebbets Field. All the set pieces look accurate and are likely to evoke nostalgic bliss for anyone who remembers the location.
Watching Robinson steal bases, aggravate pitchers, and slide onto plates is exhilarating, as well as comical to watch. More comic relief comes from the relationship Jackie has with his teammates, specifically regarding team showers.
While there is plenty to enjoy about “42,” it also suffers from problematic constraints that keep it from truly reaching its potential. To reiterate, the film at times gives the impression of a cable TV movie. The indoor sets are cheap; they look too clean for the time period.
Most distinctively, “42” meanders through its predictable plot without having to do much. If you have seen any type of sports film before, it will not be hard to figure out where this one is going. There is an overuse of Mark Isham’s score to an almost corny effect. The violins swirl and horns ascend during the tender moments making an emotional experience feel manipulative and tacky. Harrison Ford gives an unusually hammy performance as Robinson’s manager Branch Rickey. In short, “42” has the feeling of a Disney movie at times.
It was said at one point that Spike Lee had acquired the rights to adapt a Robinson biopic. It is interesting to think about how that film may have turned out. In any case, there is no reason a baseball aficionado will not mildly enjoy “42” as a film. Its most valuable aspect is that it carries heart and serves as a competent tribute to one of America’s most idolized sports figures. Expectations should be lowered, however, as it is not the end-all, be-all of baseball flicks. At any cost, “42” does not diminish Robinson’s legendary status as one of sport’s greatest icons, and it should be a welcome addition to the genre.
Robert Gabe is a second-year student majoring in communication studies. He can be reached at RG770214@wcupa.edu.