'42' Movie Review: Jackie Robinson Film Lacks Antagonist, Goal For Protagonists
42, starring Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman, chronicles Jackie Robinson's introduction to Major League Baseball and his rookie year on the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Not really a biopic, and not really a sports movie, the Brian Helgeland creation suffers from a lack of focus. It's as if the film's message is simply that it was difficult for Jackie Robinson to break Baseball's color barrier. Though individual scenes were sometimes highly enjoyable, the absence of certain cohesive story elements (like a clear antagonist) detracted from the film as a whole.
Starting with the positives, let me say first that 42 is not your average white guilt movie like The Help or The Blind Side, in which privileged caucasians tackle racism. In this story, it's Jackie who struggles. Team owner Branch Rickey (Ford) isn't there to clear any obstacles for Robinson, but to remind him that he can't fail. It's only towards the end of the film that Rickey even admits his pursuit was a noble one, saying early on that signing Robinson was just a way to encourage black ticket-buyers. As a white person, I was really glad this film didn't try to give us credit for Jackie Robinson.
Staying on the bright side, the acting in 42 is top notch. It's impossible not to like Harrison Ford, and the relatively unknown Boseman performs admirably as Robinson. Alan Tudyk, perennial “that guy from...” plays as the despicably racist Phillies Manager, Ben Chapman, and does an excellent job of being just absolutely loathsome. The real treat of the film however, is John C. McGinley as legendary Dodger's announcer Red Barber. Barber is the godfather of color commentary, and McGinley's delivery of his iconic home-spun sayings was better than a cool drink on a hot day.
But while all of the supporting characters were enjoyable, the meandering nature of the film made it so they seemed to vanish and reappear at random. The story begins from the point of view of black journalist Wendell Smith, who follows Robinson from the start of his career in the minors. He makes a few poignant speeches in the first half of the film, then disappears entirely without explanation until the epilogue. In another scene, we're introduced to the new manager of the Dodgers, Burt Shotton, and the gravity of his hiring makes it seem like he'll be an important figure in the film. Nope. After that scene he's only on screen one more time and doesn't have any more lines.
The core problem with 42 is that there was no definite goal for the protagonists to accomplish, and no clear antagonist trying to stop them. Yes, they want to fight racism and there are plenty of racists to fight, but the problem is that there is no specific moment when you win that battle. The climactic triumph of the film (spoiler alert for the 1947 National League pennant race), comes when the Dodgers win the pennant, but it's not like the KKK disbanded as a result. The central conflict in 42 is the existence of racism in general, which is simply too intangible for a Hollywood movie.
Overall, 42 has a few fun and satisfying scenes of Robinson stickin' it to the man and making bigots eat their words, but fails to deliver as a whole. There's no doubt that Jackie Robinson has an interesting story to tell, it just doesn't fit nicely into three acts.