Here's To You, Mr. Robinson

Writer-director Brian Helgeland is one of Hollywood’s great knuckleballers, a man who’s fashioned a rather turbulent filmography over the last two decades. When he’s on, his stuff is untouchable (Helgeland adapted both “L.A. Confidential” and “Mystic River”), but his lesser work is fairly objectionable (see: the remake of “The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3,” or better yet, don’t). While “42” mirrors his career trajectory by fusing the good with the bad, it’s mostly the former, anchored by a tremendous cast and impeccable production values. The Jackie Robinson story has always been more than deserving of a gaudy big-screen telling, and Helgeland is happy to oblige.

Chadwick Boseman stars as Jackie, the ball player who would break the color barrier, while Harrison Ford co-stars as the Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager, Branch Rickey. While Rickey’s motivations are suspect at the film’s starting point, he’s adamant about being the first to bring a player out of baseball’s Negro Leagues and into Major League Baseball. The talent was there all along, but open-mindedness was in short supply. The prejudice of millions of Americans had kept baseball an all-white sport through the mid-40s, and even the proponents of Rickey’s efforts were skeptical.

Rickey’s on-screen search for a man with “the guts not to fight back” is short-lived, and Robinson is quickly in camp with the Montreal Royals. The depiction of Jackie’s personal life is limited to his relationship with his wife, Rachel (played by a magnetic Nicole Beharie), and this becomes one of the picture’s many problems in its early going. The Jackie of Act I is drawn so one-dimensionally that Helgeland is forced to bombard us with clichés in order to keep our attention. Yes, clichés are inherent in the set up of any sports film, but Helgeland plays them up instead of muting them. The bombast, bordering on corniness, is overwhelming, but thankfully, short-lived.

As Jackie makes it to the Majors around the movie’s hour mark, Helgeland no longer has to bear the burden of creating moments. The moments are already there, as constructed by history books, and the story begins to tell itself. Also, the semi-sanitized racism of the film’s first half gives way to a much more venomous kind of prejudice, as engendered by Philadelphia Phillies manager, Ben Chapman (played seethingly by Alan Tudyk). The way in which the n-word flies from the tip of his icy tongue is chilling, and Jackie’s subsequent reaction in the tunnel sends the film into the stratosphere.

Having found its groove, the rest of the piece is a potent cocktail of goosebump-inducing moments and genuine laughs. As the writing picks up, Boseman and Ford shine, while the supporting cast is just as delightful – a lineup that includes Christopher Meloni, Toby Huss, Lucas Black, John C. McGinley, and many more. The pic’s finale is more in line with Act I in its banality, but the cast and crew have built up enough goodwill that the lackluster conclusion isn’t decisive.

That “42” soars so high after an unimaginative first hour is a credit to Jackie Robinson himself. But, his humble – some might say boring – personal life is likely the reason it took so long for his story to hit the big screen. And because of that, it’s hard to fault Brian Helgeland for the film’s shortcomings. Some of this is really strong stuff, and it’s one of the best sports films – and biopics – in recent memory. It’s also significantly more kid-friendly than its PG-13 rating might suggest. “42” is a must-see for baseball fans and history buffs alike, hitting some notes that few sports films would even dream of. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: April 12, 2013
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Brian Helgeland
Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black, Hamish Linklater, Ryan Merriman, T.R. Knight
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including language)