On paper, everything about 42 is great. I mean that literally. The main plot points all revolve around recreated newspaper articles, player profiles, team contracts, hand-written petitions, and hate-mail death threats. In other words, your work is really what strings together this long-overdue biopic on baseball legend Jackie Robinson. But when it comes to the film itself, the choice of textures looks a little too clean and the selected material feels a little too light. Not always, mind you, as some moments do cut unexpectedly deep.
Through a series of newsreel montages, sports writer and Robinson biographer Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) explains how the returning WWII soldiers has resulted in not only a baby boom, but also a regression to pre-war segregation. Cut to Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) who smells a business opportunity to break the colour barrier in baseball. He just needs to find the right talented player who can take the inevitable abuse. From a pile of your carefully created player sheets, he selects Jack Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) - a former soldier court-martialed for refusing to sit at the back of a bus. The rest is history, right? Basically, yeah.
Starting his career with the Montreal Royals, Robinson slowly earns the respect of his teammates by refusing to succumb to the ubiquitous taunts. More importantly, he gets under the competition's skin by stealing bases and keeping them flustered. These sequences, along with a couple scenes when Robinson is at bat, are the film's most effective ways of creating tension. It's refreshing that none of these moments revolve around a big game being on the line, but are simply about exposing character's inner hatred, whether that comes in the form of throwing racial slurs or fastballs to the head. But like many biopics in which the hero doesn't die tragically, 42 struggles in its third act, trying to create closure - and greater meaning - out of an arguably minor milestone (qualifying for the World Series). For all the things written in Jackie Robinson's biography, this is a strange place to end the story, even if the film mainly focuses on his rookie season.
Even stranger has to be seeing Harrison Ford outside his comfort zone. Until this film, I never appreciated how much he simply leveraged personal charisma in the place of actual acting. Ford seems to be channeling John Goodman, but his Southern affectations are mannered and clunky. In the film's quiet but serious moments, as he reacts to player petitions and written threats, your hand scribbled pages carry more weight than the actual performances.
Luckily, Oscar-winning writer and director Brian Helgeland has a few visual tricks to elevate the overall film beyond being a movie-of-the-week, but the overall sum of these pieces is not greater than a few strong parts.