(NEW YORK) -- 42 begins with Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manger Branch Rickey’s landmark decision to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Rickey's warned against the decision by at least one of his top two lieutenants, but Rickey knows better. He’s been planning this for a while and already has compiled a list of the Negro League’s top players. And on top of that list is a cocky, base-stealing son-of-a-gun and former UCLA athletics star named Jackie Robinson.
While the story of Robinson's signing and his subsequent 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers is well known to ardent baseball fans, it may be less familiar to casual fans and the public at large. Writer-director Brian Helgeland shows us a series of moments from Robinson’s first year in the majors that are illuminating, frustrating, confounding and miraculous. While younger generations likely were never exposed to the type of racism depicted in this movie, Helgeland still holds back, making what's shown in this PG-13 story more palatable for the whole family to see. It's an unfortunate decision, but an understandable one.
Actor Chadwick Boseman -- whose biggest film role prior to this was starring in last year's little-seen The Kill Hole -- doesn’t just look like Jackie Robinson, but he does an excellent job of internalizing the sports hero's struggles between proud black man and ground-breaking game changer. Harrison Ford as legendary baseball man Rickey is one of Ford’s best performances in years, even when he’s laying on Rickey’s guttural tones a bit thick.
Overall, 42 -- so titled for Robinson's uniform number -- vacillates between meaningful art that will move you to tears, and a cheesy after-school special. Robinson’s story is one of the great stories of our time, and doesn't need the often heavy-handed manipulation seen here, with obvious dialogue punctuated by dramatic musical swells.
In other words, 42 isn't the best movie you'll see all year, nor is it the best baseball movie you'll ever see. Instead, it’s a nice, accessible film neutered of some of the uglier indignities Robinson and African-Americans had to endure at the time. And again, that’s OK -- it just makes for a slightly less powerful rendering of an incredibly powerful and important tale. Regardless, sports fans and fans of humanity will, at times, likely be moved to tears.
Three-and-a-half out of five stars.
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