It can be hard to do justice to a real-life legend, but “42” rather effectively captures the essence of Jackie Robinson.
It’s a traditional — and sometimes schmaltzy — telling of Robinson’s historic breaking of baseball’s color barrier, but it’s also emotionally moving, authentic and filled with big performances.
The film opens in 1945, with Robinson playing in the Negro Leagues, and continues through his one minor-league season — spent in Montreal — and his rookie year in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Unknown Chadwick Boseman is tasked with the complex role of Jackie Robinson, and he aces it in every way. Athletically, he is convincing, swinging the bat with authority and dancing around the bases with daring and a barely controlled fury.
Off the field, Boseman manages to convey Robinson’s struggle to keep his composure and hold his temper in the face of indefensible racism coming at him from every side, including his own locker room.
Robinson wasn’t some naive kid. He was a World War II veteran with a college education, wise to the ways of the world, and you can feel his inner turmoil as he’s forced to turn the other cheek to ignorance, knowing that fighting back could undo all the good he was doing.
Equal billing in “42,” however, has to go to Harrison Ford, who gives his best performance in years while disappearing into the role of grouchy, opinionated baseball-pioneer Branch Rickey.
Rickey, owner of the Dodgers, had complicated motivations, but was steadfast and determined in his plan to integrate baseball. Ford is crusty and warmhearted and somehow makes the viewer forget that “Hey, that’s Harrison Ford behind that cigar!”
Nicole Beharie (who also played the girlfriend of another groundbreaking athlete, Syracuse football player Ernie Davis, in “The Express”) capably plays Jackie’s patient and loving wife, Rachel, though most of the film’s hokiest moments revolve around their devoted relationship.
Christopher Meloni has a small but entertaining part as former Dodgers manager Leo “The Lip” Durocher, while John C. McGinley deserves mention for his extremely amusing turn as legendary announcer Red Barber.
The most memorable and powerful scene in “42,” though, is courtesy of usual funny man Alan Tudyk (“Firefly”), who plays redneck Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman and delivers a long and unrelenting vitriolic rant while Robinson is at the plate. It’s uncomfortable and painful to watch — and thoroughly unforgettable.
“42” is authentic and touching. All baseball fans should see it, but it should appeal even to those who don’t already know the significance of the number.
Rental Recommendation: The first Jackie Robinson movie, “The Jackie Robinson Story,” came out in 1950 — just three years after his historic debut — and it actually starred Robinson himself, coming off an MVP season. He was a much better ballplayer than actor. Grade: C+
Email Steve Ouellette: firstname.lastname@example.org
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie
Rated: PG-13 (for thematic elements including language)
Running time: 128 minutes