Silver Screen: Forty-two ***1/2
There's a difference between a great story and a great movie about a great story. That distinction is particularly difficult to parse out in Forty-two, a definitely not-great movie about an undeniably great man.
Jackie Robinson deserves every bit of his hero status. As the first black man to break baseball's color barrier, he faced immense struggles both on and off the field and responded with courage and grace. Oftentimes our cultural conflicts play out on the field of sport, but never more directly or impactfully than here; it's no overstatement to say that Robinson's bravery was a precursor to the simmering Civil Rights movement that took shape just years later, and he rightfully remains both an African American icon and an American icon.
So it's inevitable that any movie about Robinson will be inspiring. How can it not be? And the movie Forty-two is inspiring- moments will send chills through the most cynical moviegoer- mostly because of the reality of Jackie Robinson, not for the artful expression of his struggles. It's a good movie about a great man that is largely good because it basks in the refracted glory of his greatness.
Writer and director Brian Helgeland does a respectable job helming Forty-two, but the movie plays like the most expensive museum-grade filmstrip, an appropriately reverent hagiography that extols the man's virtues without ever really putting us in his world or expanding our knowledge of his character.
Helgeland makes two smart choices early. First, he's wise enough to realize that the big name in the movie is Jackie Robinson, not the actor, so rather than cast a semi-credible performer with a marquee name, his Jackie is played by relative unknown Chadwick Boseman, an able lead with a believably athletic frame who's equally nimble with the on-field spectacle and the off-field dramatics. Helgeland's second smart move is to avoid the broad, cradle-to-grave Wikipedia-synopsis structure that sullies so many biopics, and instead narrows his focus to Robinson's first year in the minors and his Major League debut. It's far more effective to convey the whole story through its most salient moments, but unfortunately Helgeland never really makes use of the latitude this gives him.
A slightly more suspect choice is to give almost equal attention to Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Ricky (Harrison Ford), a God-fearing businessman whose religion instills in him a profound belief in equality. While it's likely true that without Ricky's determination and moral rectitude- not to mention connections within the baseball establishment- Robinson might never have gotten the chance to prove his abilities, focusing so much on their relationship is a bit... questionable. There's no doubt that Helgeland's intentions are good, but the movie's racial politics are at times simplistic and at other times, at the very least, less than inspirational, such as when Ricky tells Robinson, “I want a player who has the guts not to fight back.”
That line is ascribed to the real-life Ricky, and it certainly is indicative of Robinson's legacy as a peaceful, mild-mannered legend who essentially killed 'em with kindness. But that's also an incredibly complex idea, one that begs for explication. Helgeland's film does explore the turmoil this caused Robinson, but only superficially. Perhaps if less time was devoted to Ricky's front-office business dealings, Helgeland would have had more time for it.
Or perhaps not. Complexity is not Forty-two's strong suit, and most of the characters have a defining feature. Robinson's wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) is so unfailingly optimistic and supportive she never has a chance to do anything else. His right-hand man Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), one of the first nationally recognized black sportswriters, is a blandly faithful assistant and chronicler. Only the white characters do any changing, and they're divided into two camps: guys who remain squinty-eyed and racist, and the ones who start off skeptical and come around by the end.
That's not to say Forty-two is entirely sanitized for your protection. The great character actor Alan Tudyk, playing former Phillies manager Ben Chapman, has a brazenly unpleasant scene in which he taunts Robinson from the dugout with numerous N-bombs. It's a hard scene to watch, surely one that played out far more than once for the real-life Robinson, but it's one of the few sequences that really conveys the intensity and awfulness of our hero's situation.
But mostly the movie is like the digitally conjured recreation of Ebbets Field in which much of the action takes place- slick, shiny, and pleasing from afar, but without the details to make it alive. Forty-two fails to capture even the less-controversial facets of baseball, the peanut shells and hotdog vendors and scribbled-on scorecards. John C. McGinley's turn as sportscaster Red Barber is one of the few elements that feels credibly old-fashioned and real.
Here and there Helgeland is able to craft moments that do capture something deeper and more significant about Robinson's legacy. Particularly affecting is an early scene, what seems like a throwaway moment, in which Robinson gives a kind word and a baseball to a young African American boy who clearly idolizes him. It's brought back later in a nice, surprising callback that reinforces the profound effect that Robinson's actions would have beyond his playing years and even his own lifetime.
It's better for Forty-two to exist than to not, but such a remarkable life deserves a more remarkable film.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.