"God built me to last," Jackie Robinson says at one point in "42," and, thankfully, his remarkable story is built the same way. It would have to be to survive the full-dress Hollywood biopic treatment it gets in this film, which is unabashedly subtitled "The True Story of an American Legend." And survive it does.
You almost can't blame writer-director Brian Helgeland for taking an old-fashioned, earnest-to-a-fault approach to the genuinely heroic narrative of the Brooklyn Dodger who in 1947 — in a move masterminded by team General Manager Branch Rickey -- broke the Major League Baseball color barrier, led the Dodgers to the National League pennant and won rookie of the year honors.
PHOTOS: Scenes from '42'
Robinson's story had so much drama in real life, and his sacrifice and pain made such a lasting influence, that "42" ends up being effective in its gee-whiz way almost in spite of itself. The film is so on-the-nose, it practically could have been made in 1947 (or 1950, when "The Jackie Robinson Story" starring the man himself hit theaters). But this is one square movie that you'll just have to let be that way.
In casting the roles of Robinson and his wife, Rachel (who lived through all of this with him), Helgeland has made shrewd choices, picking actors good enough to give their characters more texture than the film is set up to allow. Robinson is played by Chadwick Boseman, who debuted playing another athlete, Syracuse University running back Floyd Little, in 2008's "The Express." The actor brings real force and dignity to the part, as well as a fierceness that will not be pushed around.
Taking on the helpmate role played by Ruby Dee in the 1950 film is the gifted Nicole Beharie, memorable in very different roles in "American Violet" and "Shame," who uses all of her skill to ensure that this is Rachel's story as well as Jackie's.
It also helps that Helgeland (an Oscar winner for writing "L.A. Confidential") does not soft-pedal the savage, poisonous nature of the racism Robinson had to deal with. Especially effective in this regard is a sequence depicting the nonstop vitriol hurled at Robinson by Philadelphia Phillies Manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) — abuse Robinson had vowed not to respond to.
For present-day viewers, especially children, who may not have heard this kind of language in real life, prejudice as naked as this is tough to experience, even on a movie screen.
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More often than we'd like, however, "42" gives us standard tropes like unhappy stories getting told on stormy nights and women getting inexplicably sick and not realizing it's because they're pregnant. Racial barriers may disappear, but some things really do never change.
Before we enter Mr. Robinson's neighborhood, we meet Rickey, gamely played by Harrison Ford in padded three-piece suits and bow ties, in spring 1945. Crotchety and cantankerous, the general manager is determined to "bring a Negro ballplayer to the Brooklyn Dodgers," even though aghast associates warn him that "if you break an unwritten law, you'll be an outcast." Rickey replies like a visionary more than an executive: "I don't know who he is, but he's coming."
The audience, of course, knows exactly who "he" is, and soon we catch up with Robinson, playing for the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs. In a scene showcasing Robinson's shrewdness as well as fire, he maneuvers a Southern gas station owner into allowing the black ballplayers to use a whites-only restroom.
Next comes the classic meeting with Rickey, who race-baits the young man in order to give him a taste of what is to come. The general manager lets Robinson know that he must control his temper — no matter what is thrown at him — if this venture is to succeed.
When Robinson wonders testily if the general manager is looking for someone without any guts, Rickey memorably replies, "I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back." And so the film's dramatic tension gets established: Will Robinson be able to restrain himself, and how will he do it?
With African American sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) as advisor, Robinson deals with racism not only from opponents but also umpires, journalists and even members of his own team, who petition Rickey not to let him play. He has difficulty adjusting to being in the public eye off the field but displays a ferocious competitiveness on the diamond that causes Dodgers Manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) to comment, "He didn't come to play, he came to kill."
Robinson's combination of fortitude, restraint and passion for the game was stunning. You can't help getting caught up in this story, even as you are wishing the telling was sharper than it is.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including language
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Playing: In general release
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