An unflawed hero, neither weak of heel nor prone to hubris, is certainly inspiring, but not, dramatically speaking, very interesting. Armed with such a hero, 42 dearly wants to inspire and for those who don’t know about Jackie Robinson, the man who “broke the colour bar” in baseball, it may well prove so. Yet for the rest of us, I fear, it’s more likely to prove something else: that hagiography is a tough sell.
The sales pitch starts early when, after a montage of war-weary America in 1945, a bright voice-over sets the tone: “Baseball was proof positive that democracy was still alive.” Well, so heralded, the game could hardly do less then attend to the teeny matter of democratizing itself, led by the dominant figure of general manger Branch Rickey. Inflated in girth and proboscis, Harrison Ford plays him with a perpetual stogie in hand and a penchant for straining his lofty words through a tightly clenched mouth. Vowing to “bring a Negro player to the Brooklyn Dodgers,” he sorts through the candidates and finds in Robinson a superb athlete, a war veteran and, not least, a fellow Lutheran.
The deal is sealed, and their first interview proceeds straight to the anointment. Warning Robinson of the racial taunts and harassment bound to come, Rickey insists: “Like our Saviour, you have to have the guts to turn the other cheek.”
The rest of the film, which confines its focus to the history-making events of the next two years, takes that comparison pretty much to heart. But therein lies the problem. To sanctify Robinson, to elevate him to godly heights – perfect man, perfect husband, perfect athlete perfectly gifted at the game – is in its own way to denigrate his vast achievements. I’m not suggesting that the script is willfully covering anything up, but to deny the man his simple mortal flaws is to make his struggle seem too easy.
Of course, this leaves newcomer Chadwick Boseman straitjacketed into a role with scant room to act anything but noble. Helped by a striking resemblance to the actual Robinson, he does noble quite well. For his part, director Brian Helgeland drenches the picture in a burnished palette as squeaky clean as the protagonists. Even the deep and depressed South sparkles like a fresh baseball plucked from the umpire’s bag. When Robinson, at Florida spring training for his minor-league stint with the Montreal Royals, tosses a souvenir to a young black boy, the beaming kid looks to have stepped right out of a J. Crew catalogue. Again, however well-meaning the intent, the effect is to undercut the very bravery that is being trumpeted – a J. Crew look does a disservice to the harshness of a Jim Crow world.
Suiting up for the dark side are the white trash who hurl the n-word from the stands or, when Robinson makes it to the bigs, from the opposing dugout. Yet the movie is careful to balance the moral ledger. Even in the South, every racist has his opposite number, like the grizzled old cracker who barges up to Robinson only to smile his toothless smile and declare, “I’m pulling for you to make good.”
Ditto in the Dodger clubhouse, where the prejudiced are equally matched by the tolerant likes of Pee Wee Reese, Ralph Branca and Eddie Stanky. More lively is Christopher Meloni’s grouchy cameo as Leo Durocher, whose take on the race questions tends to the brutally pragmatic: “I’ll play an elephant if it helps us win.”
Tellingly, the best scene in the film, the only one with any real vitality, is when the Saviour weakens. Faced with an especially vicious torrent of invective spewed by the Phillies manager, Robinson pops out twice and, in his failure, we’re made to feel something of the titanic strength he must have needed to succeed. But then Helgeland ruins it by tacking on a grace note in the dugout corridor, where Rickey appears to resurrect our hero with another of his buoyant sermons.
To complete the pretty picture, every villain receives his comeuppance. No act of racism in baseball goes unpunished here. Thanks to the heroics of Jackie Robinson, such consistent justice might be true now – he could only have wished it were then. No doubt, in the hallowed frames of 42, the legend is front and centre and still inspiring. Too bad the more interesting man is nowhere to be seen.