Biopics aren’t generally known as crowd-pleasers. But the ones that need to incorporate this important element the most are sports movies. Even when a sports film is not a biopic, it still needs to keep this in mind. There haven’t been too many of them lately, but writer/director Brian Helgeland definitely knows how to do it right. While Helgeland’s films have never been known for being bright and lively – having written things like Nightmare on Elm Street 4, L.A. Confidential, Payback, Mystic River, and Man on Fire — he still infuses 42 with a palpable sense of tension. Albeit of the racial kind.
42 brings to life the trials and tribulations of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) from his early days on the all-black International League’s Kansas City Monarch’s to his first year playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) has decided he’s had enough of the game being exclusively white — and wants to bank on the financial benefits an African American player would bring. Things aren’t helped by the fact that segregation is, of course, running rampant in the late 1940s following World War II. Rickey gives Robinson the opportunity to play for the Montreal Royals even with the rest of the players signing petitions or asking to be traded. Jackie marries Rachel (Nicole Beharie) and they’re off to the races. Everyone knows Rickey has ulterior motives, but he thinks Jackie is exactly the kind of man he needs to break the barrier and pave the way for all African American players — even if just in the world of baseball.
42 certainly is timely, even if it’s not really trying to be. I said the same thing about Lincoln just a few months ago. And my wife summed it up perfectly when she said, “new generation, new issue.” While everyone may not be putting the two together, just take a look at what’s going on right now with the gay and lesbian rights, and try telling me they’re different? Helgeland sheds just as much light on our Nation’s dirty past as Spielberg and Tarantino have over the last few months. It seems like it’s time to rub our noses in the past, and why not? It’s not like it’s any kind of secret.
Of course this has nothing to do with the film’s quality itself and that’s what you’re here for. Helgeland works wonders with his cast here. Boseman knocks it out of the park in his portrayal of the young up-and-coming Robinson, while Beharie brings a sense of humor to the doting wife role. Alan Tudyk (from Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale) plays the sleezeball redneck to a T, while Ford shows he’s still mighty capable of delivering a full performance and nearly steals the show. Helgeland does himself a huge favor by not extending his film to Robinson’s full career as it runs two hours in length and already feels a little padded in places. The racial tension keeps the fireworks erupting while Mark Isham makes John Williams proud with his swelling score. Baseball may be called the national pastime, and in other ways, so is going to the movies. Is it any wonder the two work together so magically, and 42 is no exception.
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