It's hard to think that in a 40-year acting career that included Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, Richard Kimble, and an Oscar nomination for Witness, Harrison Ford never really tried to delve into the role of a person who actually existed. It's why the casting of 42, the movie about Jackie Robinson, felt so weird: It isn't some great Method actor known for disappearing into his roles playing Branch Rickey. It's Ford, one of the all-time recognizable movie stars. He does a beautiful job of it, too.
That's important, because the story of Jackie Robinson as told in 42 is very much the story of Branch Rickey, the man who took the chance of signing Robinson. Rickey actually receives a wee bit more character development than Robinson, as we get to hear the stories of why Rickey feels so strongly about signing a black man to a major league contract, we learn of his devout Methodism, and he's really the one pulling a lot of the strings. On the other hand, we don't learn so much about Robinson's past, and we don't even get any views on interpretations of Robinson's famous 1945 tryout for the Boston Red Sox - something the Red Sox only did to appease Civil Rights activists, after which they told Robinson not to call them, they would call him.
42 plays out as the story of Jackie Robinson's rookie year in 1947, when he won the Rookie of the Year award and led the Dodgers to the Pennant. That's the only year we get to see played out in 42, but man, is it ever a doozy. I know Robinson faced unfathomable racism of the worst kind, and seeing it placed right in front of my face was pretty jarring. I was born in 1981, and it's difficult for see how different everything was back then, and know that there are still a lot of people alive today who had to live through the kind of abuse Robinson faced. (My father was born in 1947.) A lot of the motivations for bringing Robinson up to the bigs had to do with money, something even Rickey even admits when he tries to sell the idea. Hey, if it worked!
The racism is the main theme of 42. Although there's naturally a lot of baseball played in the movie, 42 has very little to do with baseball. Yes, we get regular updates about how the Brooklyn Dodgers are doing, but 42 exists mostly so we can get a look at Jackie Robinson and get an idea of the way the rest of the world reacted to him. There are some famous bits and pieces of the year in the movie - Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman verbally undressing Robinson with a relentless onslaught of every racial slur he can think of, and Pee Wee Reese placing his arm around Robinson's shoulder as a show of solidarity as Robinson is lustily booed by a crowd in Cincinnati. A moment I would have liked to see would be after Robinson led the minor league Montreal Royals to their Championship, after which him and his wife, Rachel, were chased through Montreal by throngs of adoring fans who wanted to celebrate; the irony of that wasn't lost on Jackie or Rachel. Montreal is in fact covered pretty generically, and Robinson's Montreal Manager, Clay Hopper, barely has five minutes of screen time. That's a shame for an ornery southern segregationist who was completely transformed by the experience of having Robinson on his team and mentored more black players who came up through Brooklyn's system afterward.
There are some very powerful scenes in 42; Branch Rickey's declaration about wanting someone with the guts to not fight back is in 42, and his worry about facing the lord one day with an inexcusable answer to the question of why he didn't let black people play Major League Baseball are both in it. Hell, none other than Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, gave 42 her personal blessing and said they did a great job with it. However, there are far too many scenes in 42 awash in syrupy melodrama. First of all, there are some of those damned kids in the movie. I've long believed the use of kids who turn up during pivotal power scenes is a cheap directorial tool for hacks, and half the time I keep wishing the little ankle-biter gets run over by a train. During the scene in Cincinnati with Reese and Robinson, there's one of those kids, and he's seen taking after his father and screaming slurs, then being instantly changed when he sees Reese place his hand on Robinson's shoulder and chat him up. The scene would have been just as effective without the kid, especially since 42 is mostly melodramatic kid-free and this happens close to the finale. Gag me.
That's not all. The ridiculous score sounds like the insufferable music that always accompanied the Lesson of the Week on a terrible 80's sitcom. I get that such dreck is par course for movies like this, but there's virtually no other kinds of music heard throughout 42. What this does is give 42 a real after-school special feel, and after-school specials don't ring fond memories in people of my generation. By and large, we just started getting fed up with the things after awhile.
You can't have a sports movie without an army of cliches, and things were decidedly looking down after the scene where Jackie proposes to Rachel over the phone. Cliches are wildly abundant because of the nature of 42: A sports movie about racism. 42 takes its sweet time letting you know exactly what it's about. One early scene shows Robinson trying to use the toilet at a gas station but being denied for being the wrong color, then telling the attendant they would be getting gas somewhere else. Another scene is when Jackie and Rachel arrive in New Orleans for Spring Training and Jackie finds herself staring at a Whites Only bathroom, saying she's heard about them, but never seen them before. Annoying as those cliches were, they were at least important to the theme of the movie. The other cliches come through the baseball medium, and they're no good at all. Most of them revolve around people having their opinions of Jackie being changed on a dime because he makes some otherworldly athletic play. There are on-cue diving catches and home runs. There's a walk-off at the end of the Big Game at the finale.
What really confused me, though, is that 42 seems to place a big emphasis on Robinson's ability to steal. Yeah, we get that Robinson was very fast, but as this movie proves, that doesn't translate well to cinematic excitement. Not on a baseball diamond, anyway. That's not entirely absurd because Robinson was a two-time Stolen Bases Champion, but his stealing numbers in either of those years wasn't outrageous - 29 in 1947 and 37 in 1949 - and it's clear from the start of the movie that Branch Rickey wants him because he was a prolific hitter (.311 career average). So it seems funny to me that stealing would be given such an emphasis, even if Robinson did steal home in the 1955 World Series.
I won't begrudge 42 for its story or the fact that it shows us just how stupid we really used to be. The fact that it earned a ringing endorsement from Rachel Robinson says more about it than I ever could, and you should probably go see it for that reason alone - it is, after all, one of those stories that really needs to be told, and that you can't fully appreciate until you know something about it beyond the usual school textbook glossover. That doesn't necessarily mean it's a very good movie, though. At least Harrison Ford's performance is captivating enough to hold your attention between the after-school special parts of it.