The popularity of baseball films has diminished greatly since the glory days of the genre in the 40s and 50s. Yet we might just be witnessing something of a renaissance for the genre. Moneyball ended up with a Best Picture nomination. Knuckleball! has been a well-received documentary and even Trouble With the Curve featured some solid filmmaking. However, the genre still needs another film that can garner the type of publicity that Moneyballreceived, and 42 might just have been that film. 42 received quite a bit of publicity this spring when it received the rare A+ Cinemascore. For once mainstream audiences got it right. 42 is a fantastic film that serves as a strong tribute to Jackie Robinson.
42 follows Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman)’s ascension into Major League Baseball from Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) seeking him out to him contributing to the Dodgers’ playoff push. The film is directed and written by Brian Helgeland (screenwriter of L.A. Confidential and Mystic River).
The easiest way to bring down a biopic about a well-known figure such as Jackie Robinson is to be overly sentimental. Brian Helgeland finds the perfect amount of sentimentality to not only avoid this easy mistake but also turn it into one of the film’s strong suits. This is just one of the many impressive things that Helgeland does with his direction and his script. The film covers a lot of ground and Helgeland isn’t afraid to go to some dark places along the way while also making everything feel necessary to the story he is trying to tell. It would be quite easy to turn this film into a “greatest hits” version of Jackie Robinson’s life (and those films never work), and Helgeland never lets that happen. The thing that impressed me the most about Helgeland’s script though is that he is able to make this an easy sit for the uninitiated while also including enough inside-baseball (literally) elements to make it interesting for the biggest fans.
The cast is another strong point of the film. Chadwick Boseman makes a major impression as Jackie Robinson to the point that many will relate him to a young Denzel Washington. Boseman is a charming guy and he is able to portray Robinson’s contained ferocity quite effectively. Harrison Ford is a great counterpoint to the much louder acting that occurs around him. It is easily his greatest performance in years and it gives me hope that his increased workload in recent years will bear fruit. Nicole Beharie is another standout as Jackie Robinson’s wife. It’s nice to see that Beharie was able to give a lot of strength to a figure that is treated like a god in real life nowadays by Major League Baseball. The other standouts of the supporting cast are Christopher Meloni (who is quietly having a good year as he also delivered one of the more memorable supporting turns in Man of Steel) and Lucas Black (who is able to standout from the crowd as the legendary baseball player Pee Wee Reese).
42 is one of the best films of the year.