In April 1947, Jackie Robinson walked on the field as a Brooklyn Dodger and left a legend.
That's 42, director Brian Helgeland's celebratory look at the life of the pioneer who smashed baseball's color line, distilled to its Hollywood biopic essence. More heartfelt hagiography than muckraking biography, this is no slice of revisionist history or deep psychological exploration. Even the most woefully sports-ignorant probably know all the plot points here by heart.
Yet, for all its feel-good sports-movie predictability, 42 -- named for Robinson's number on his uniform -- is surprisingly effective and even, at a couple of points, moving.
Chadwick Boseman is Robinson, a talented shortstop for the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs, who is scouted by Dodgers president Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who has plans to integrate the team. Rickey is motivated not only by what's right but what he sees as the game's financial future.
Of course, Rickey's advisers are horrified by the idea and, once Robinson is signed, he's subjected to a shower of verbal abuse from teammates, fans and members of opposing teams. (North Texas' own Alan Tudyk has a short but memorable part as Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman, who hurls racial epithets like fastballs.)
Thanks to his talent and perseverance, Robinson begins to break down barriers with some of the other Dodgers. A couple -- Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) -- might even be considered friends by the end.
Through it all, Robinson can rely on the support of his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie, American Violet), and sports reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), whom Rickey has hired to be Robinson's assistant.
Yet, except for one scene when Chapman's name-calling nearly gets to Robinson and he has to be talked back onto the field by Rickey, the audience doesn't really get to feel the emotional torment Robinson must have been experiencing. It's as if Helgeland, who also wrote the script, was afraid to show Robinson with any flaws whatsoever.
Still, there are small moments -- when Reese puts his arm around Robinson in front of a jeering Cincinnati crowd, or when Branca finally persuades Robinson to shower with the rest of his team -- that give 42 a sense of humanity that deepens the film's story arc. If only there were more of them.
But Helgeland ( Payback) has a lot of life to squeeze into just over two hours. As it is, he concentrates on the years 1945-47, and 42 still feels rushed and telescoped in spots.
By the end though, it's hard not to get caught up in Robinson's struggle, even though everyone knows how it turns out. Boseman (known mostly for TV roles up to now) plays Robinson with the right combination of bravado and indignation, Ford is appropriately crusty as Rickey, and Christopher Meloni ( Law & Order: SVU) makes for an engagingly irascible Leo Durocher, the Dodgers' manager.
42 may not hit it out of the park, but it doesn't drop the ball either. Sometimes that's the best you can ask for.
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571