The film we’ll be reviewing for this edition of Replay Review is the biographical baseball drama, 42, helmed by Hollywood star Chadwick Boseman.
On August 28th, Chadwick Boseman passed away after a private battle with colon cancer. The actor was popular, well-respected, and beloved by not only his fans but also critics and his Hollywood peers. His passing came as a surprise to many; some of his closest friends, like fellow Marvel star Michael B. Jordan, who’s known Boseman since he was a teenager, had no idea the actor was sick. Only a handful of non-family members were aware of the extent of Boseman’s illness or that he was even sick at all.
Since first being diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016, Boseman had taken on several projects, including appearances in the popular Marvel franchise and many well-regarded, critically acclaimed dramas. Boseman’s impact was felt not only in the world of entertainment but in the sports world as well, as athletes across the major sports, such as the St. Louis Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty and the New York Giants’ Golden Tate, paid their respects to a star lost far too soon.
Brian Helgeland’s 42 follows the story of Jackie Robinson’s ascension from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball. The film opens with Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey looking for a Black baseball player with whom he can break the color barrier. After sifting through the files of multiple players and dismissing them for various reasons—Rickey dismisses Satchel Paige, for example, for being too old—he comes across the dossier of Jackie Robinson. After being assured that, despite being court-martialed while in the Army for refusing to move to the back of a bus, Robinson has the temperament to turn the other cheek and withstand the inevitable onslaught of racial abuse that would come, Rickey, decides that he’s found his man.
Jackie Robinson signs a contract with the Dodgers and joins the Montréal Royals, Brooklyn’s Triple-A affiliate after making the team out of spring training (despite some opposition from those within the Dodgers organization). After a season in Triple-A—a period that is glossed over by the film—Robinson makes the Dodgers roster the following spring. Several of Robinson’s new Dodgers teammates circulate a petition, stating their refusal to play with him; the players are forced to back down from their demands when manager Leo Durocher intervenes.
Robinson faces many obstacles, usually in the form of racist teammates, umpires, and opponents, including Firefly star Alan Tudyk in a brief, stomach-churning role as a vilely racist opposing manager. Tudyk’s Ben Chapman hurls abuse after abuse at Robinson until Robinson finally cracks and takes a baseball bat to the dugout tunnel. Rickey, played for the most part with scene-chewing aplomb by Harrison Ford, offers fatherly concern and eventually convinces Robinson to return to the field.
Little by little, most of Robinson’s teammates begin to warm up to him and some even begin to understand the amount of pressure he’s been placed under. When Pee Wee Reese goes to Rickey with a piece of racist hate mail he’s received, Rickey helps put the letter into perspective when he shows Reese the many folders of hateful letters sent into Jackie Robinson. Later, as Robinson faces yet another onslaught of racist abuse from fans, Reese puts his arm around his shoulders in a public show of support that quiets the crowd.
In a little bit of revisionist history, Robinson slugs the pennant-winning home run off a racist pitcher who’d previously beaned him in the head. In reality, Jackie Robinson’s home run wasn’t a clincher—it gave the team a 2-0 lead in a game they eventually won 4-2, putting them in position to tie for the pennant—and the pitcher in question hit in Robinson the wrist, not the head. The film ends soon thereafter with scenes of a victorious Robinson returning home to his wife Rachel, intercut with scenes of his home run trot around the bases.
42 is well-made and well-acted but is ultimately a fairly thin, sanitized look at a brief period in Jackie Robinson’s life. Robinson is presented as an almost saintly, mythic figure; the only time he’s allowed to show any emotion is in the fictionalized scene in the dugout tunnel when he smashes a baseball bat to pieces. It’s the only real glimpse the audience is given of Robinson as a real person struggling with the pressure of the expectations placed on him and the racist abuse he suffers. The talented Boseman does what he can with the role, hinting at the emotions that must have been roiling just under the surface. (It also makes one wonder what could have been.)
There’s no mention of Jackie Robinson’s political and social activism, and only hints at the lasting impact he’s had on the game through the character of a young Black boy who eventually grows up to be a Major League player himself—1969 World Champion Ed Charles—and clips of contemporary stars wearing jerseys emblazoned with 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. It feels as though there was more of Robinson’s story to be told, though what was told is, for the most part, effective and well-done.
On a slightly more superficial note, the baseball scenes are realistic and well-choreographed; all the players look and feel like real players, perhaps because the filmmakers used former players to fill out their rosters (including a cameo from ex-pitcher C.J. Nitkowski as pitcher Dutch Leonard). Moonlight star André Holland appears in a woefully brief supporting role as baseball writer Wendell Smith, while Wet Hot American Summer’s Chris Meloni has a disappointingly small stint as Durocher (that one wishes could have been expanded). The overall lack of Nicole Beharie is also a bit disappointing, as the talented actress is relegated to a few short scenes depicting the Robinsons’ domestic bliss and family life.
The film also takes several historical liberties, inventing the scene of Robinson’s breakdown in the dugout tunnel, altering the facts of his “pennant-clinching” homerun, and tweaking various tiny details for dramatic purposes. None of it seems exactly egregious, nor does it really detract from the film, but if you’re a stickler for accuracy in your biopics, you might come away bothered.
There is also a bit too much glossing over of events, facts, and time periods. The scene in Rickey’s office, between Rickey and fellow Dodgers front office personnel, ends and immediately we’re shown a scout approaching Robinson outside a gas station. How much time has passed? Did Rickey get any pushback from the other owners of the team? The film also compresses a year of Robinson’s life, with the Dodgers’ Triple-A team, into just a handful of minutes, making his journey to the Majors seem like a formality. Perhaps a few minutes spent showing a bit more of Robinson’s journey to the Majors could have evened things out.
The main issue with 42, though, is that the film is somewhat two-dimensional. We’re invited to observe Jackie Robinson as he accomplishes this monumental feat… but how does he truly feel about it? Does he ever have doubts or regrets? Does he ever have moments of weakness? It’s quite understandable that Robinson is presented as this heroic figure, but a better balance between “#42 Jackie Robinson” and “Jackie Robinson the man” would have been nice.
(If you have not yet seen the film and would like to, be forewarned, the racism depicted is plentiful and it is ugly. Particularly the scenes featuring Tudyk.)