There’s a natural beauty and romanticism about baseball that transitions to the silver screen as perfectly as a well-turned double play. If you add in a powerful story that resonates through history as sharply as the crack of the bat on a warm spring day, then what you have is “42.”
Director and writer Brian Helgeland recounts how Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947 when he was offered a contract by owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Helgeland shows a deep respect for both the game and for what Robinson accomplished by telling this baseball story through the human drama.
Boseman hits a home run showing Robinson as a leader on and off the field. One reason Robinson was chosen was because he had the strength to stare down the hatred and ignorance that infected this country like a poison. Despite the control he had to show in the role, Boseman gets across through his expressive face the anger, fear, determination and hope that came out of this monumental moment in time.
It’s one thing to cast an actor who can show emotions. Sports movies live or die on how well the actor can handle the physicality of the role. Boseman looks comfortable on the field. There’s a naturalness to his portrayal of Robinson that goes beyond playing a role to the point of embodying the spirit.
It all comes together in a key scene where after Robinson hits a home run to silence his critics. His trot around the bases is the most powerful we’ve seen since “The Natural.”
Helgeland doesn’t shy away from ugliness. He shows the rabid bigotry – often accented by the vilest of name calling – and doesn’t try to overcompensate to diffuse some of the most appalling of scenes. Instead, he reminds us of Robinson’s significance.
Ford is the conveyer of such truths, playing the man who either through bravery or capitalism made a move that all other owners feared. Ford plays Rickey with equal amounts of gruffness and gentleness to make it one of his most complete acting performances.
The film is “based” on the life of Robinson. Helgeland changed some of the facts for dramatic reasons, including the story of Dodgers skipper Leo Durocher. But the heart of the story remains a line-drive.
The film is being released now, in April, a time when all MLB players wear No. 42 to honor Robinson. That means it’s a long time until Oscar nominations are handed out, but both Boseman and Ford should be kept in mind for consideration.
Sports movies are inherently powerful because we invest so much in our favorite teams. Helgeland could have walked his way safely through the movie on that strength alone. But he’s put together a first-rate line-up of actors who do great justice to this already amazing story.
Rated PG-13 for language. Stars Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Lucas Black. Directed by Brian Helgeland. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.