At the start of his screenplay for L.A. Confidential, Brian Helgeland offered up a cheery, rosy picture of booming, sunny postwar California, and then spent the rest of the movie exposing the violence, corruption and general lurid goings-on without the filter of rose-coloured glasses.
As a writer and director, Helgeland promises the same kind of subversion with the beloved, wholesome American sport of baseball as it was in 1946, when the managers of all the major league teams observed a so-called gentleman's agreement that non-white players would not be permitted to play with white players.
Most managers, that is. One day, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey decided to opt out of the agreement.
42 tells the story of what happened afterwards. Rickey, played by Harrison Ford in crusty-coot mode, bestowed the honour of major league status on Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a star in the segregated Negro Leagues. But the honour was fraught with unfathomable pressure. Rickey essentially made Robinson promise to refrain from striking back at the legions of bigots and mental defectives who would line up to protest his breaking of the major league colour bar.
Helgeland tells the story of Robinson's first year in the pressure cooker with the same glossy, retro production values as L.A. Confidential, but he gets stuck in the tropes of the old-fashioned sports biopic, leaving audiences with the wish that the movie could hit a bit harder.
That said, old-fashioned production values serve well enough in the film's timeline, which sees Robinson prevented from playing outright in Florida at the insistence of an archetypal cracker sheriff. He endures the constant threat of violence. And many of his own teammates petition to have him removed from the team.
Robinson's obligation to suffer silently did not come naturally to him. He had been unsuccessfully court-martialed for insubordination while in the army owing to his unwillingness to sit at the back of a military bus. (This was 11 years before Rosa Parks took a similar stand.)
Accordingly, Boseman offers up a nuanced performance, exposing the layers beneath Robinson's stoicism, including seething rage, yes, but also an almost mischievous approach to baseball itself. (His penchant for stealing bases could "discombobulate" pitchers and actually win games.)
Solid supporting work helps, including the usually comic Alan Tudyk as a particularly virulent racist team manager, and Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, the southerner shortstop who became a better man as Robinson's teammate. Reese's act of putting his arm around Robinson in a game against Cincinnati may have struck a formidable blow against racism on its own, as a key scene implies.
The scene simultaneously demonstrates the weakness/strength of 42, a movie with zero subtlety but miles of conviction, safely touching all the bases and getting that legendary number up on the board.
Excerpts of select reviews of 42:
Working with perhaps the most inspiring of all 20th-century sports tales, writer-director Brian Helgeland opts for overblown melodramatics at every available turn, thereby reducing the enterprise -- about Robinson's successful efforts to become Major League Baseball's first African-American player -- to merely a standard-issue piece of feel-good fluff, tonally and structurally no different from scads of like-minded athletics-related films.
-- Nick Schager, Slant
Helgeland hits nearly every nail square on the head, telling the story in stark black and white, when it would have benefited from more shades of grey.
-- Bill Goodykoontz, Arizona Republic
If you want a crowd-pleaser that confirms your belief in America's steady, pre-ordained progression away from racism, this will do fine.
-- Ty Burr, Boston Globe
It's a sports film nonsports fans can love; it's a family film that never preaches; it's a biopic that also takes in the world and people around its subject.
-- Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News
There are many less flattering things you could say about a movie than that it's enjoyable in a square, uncomplicated, stirringly old-fashioned way.
-- Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
Even if you're not a baseball fan, it's an inspiring and hopeful piece of history.
-- Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press
42 settles for too little, for being an attractive primer, an introduction to the legend of Robinson and the faith that saw him through.
-- Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune