Jackie Robinson's is one of the great stories in modern American culture. Born a sharecropper's son, Robinson became a multi-sport star at UCLA and an Army man before being discharged for refusing to move to the back of a bus. He was a Negro Leagues baseball star before breaking the color barrier for the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers, suffering all measure of abuse with strength and dignity on the way to becoming one of the most significant figures in the history of America's civil rights movement. Oh, and he happened to be one of the greatest players to play his country's signature sport.
It's a rich story that deserves commensurate film treatment. It deserves the epic take that Spike Lee longed to give it at his Do the Right Thing/Malcolm X peak — full of energy and detail and politics and subjectivity. It deserves the filmmaking acumen and high-wattage cast that Michael Mann brought to the flawed but considerable Ali.
Instead, in the form of 42, from writer-director Brian Helgeland, the Robinson story takes the form of a conventional inspirational sports movie, just barely a step up from the likes of Glory Road or We Are Marshall. 42 (the film's title refers to Robinson's uniform number) puts just a bit too much of a halo on Robinson, underscored by the presence of a prayerful schoolboy fan who tracks his hero's spring-training debut. The supporting performances rarely rise above acceptable into the memorable range. And the exterior scenes, in particular, have the lightly CGI'd look of painted postcards — though the in-game scenes feel more credible than most.
Harrison Ford plays Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who famously recruited Robinson. Ford's hammy performance is cringeworthy on first contact but becomes more agreeable the longer you live with it. As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is neither beacon nor albatross. He looks the part on the field more than most actors and holds his own off it but doesn't quite elevate the middling material.
Given the limitations here, the film makes a good decision in balancing its use of Ford's Rickey as an audience stand-in with Wendall Smith (Andre Holland), a young black journalist who befriends and chronicles Robinson.
And, while one scene where white reporters mock a colleague's press-box racism feels anachronistic, the film doesn't always flinch from the environment Robinson confronted. Philadelphia Phillies' manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) subjects Robinson to lengthy verbal abuse. And the strongest scene happens in Cincinnati, where the film has the steeliness to give us a little Norman Rockwell-esque scene of a father and son in the stands, anticipating the game, only for this all-American duo to both shout racial epithets the moment Robinson takes the field. It pulls back further to suggest the fans are relatives of Dodgers' shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), who puts his arm around Robinson and explains, "I got family up there from Louisville. I need them to know. I need them to know who I am."
After a recruitment and tryout prelude, the film covers only Robinson's breakthrough rookie season, but even at 128 minutes across a relatively tight time frame, the film feels slight. It's a worthwhile primer on an essential American story, but it leaves you wanting more and better.