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'42' Is Jackie Robinson's Story On Autopilot

'42' Is Jackie Robinson's Story On Autopilot
4/12/2013 3:04 PM ET

There is doubtless a better movie to be made about Jackie Robinson than "42," one that delves a little deeper into the true nature of racism and doesn't sanitize elements of his story whenever possible. But even though "42" is hamstrung by a disappointing screenplay and a need to be PG-13, it still pulls it together for stretches that should inspire genuine reflection on Robinson's stunning feat of courage.

For a simplified version of one of the American icons of the 20th century, "42" succeeds in bringing us a story of quiet defiance, of horrifically casual racism, and of one man's role in dragging an entire country forward through the muck of bigotry and misplaced anger. We're not talking great cinema here, but if there has ever been a hero worthy of the big screen, certainly that hero is Jackie Robinson.

Unlike baseball of today, America's Pastime in the mid-1940s truly was far and away the biggest team sport on the scene, enjoying a following that was close to a religious experience for many Americans. With the war wrapping up in 1945, there wasn't a better time for restructuring the social order. Enter Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a confident ballplayer from the Negro Leagues with dreams of greatness. Though baseball was as segregated as the rest of the country at the time, Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) saw this as his opportunity to make history, not to mention make quite a few dollars in the process.

Boldly defying the law of the land and social convention, Rickey reaches out looking for a black ballplayer who had the courage to run the gauntlet of racism. What he didn't know was that Robinson was ready to be the model of an entire movement as baseball started the slow progress of integration. As Robinson starts to grasp the true nature of the movement, he's treated to all kinds of lame racial attacks, though he manages to keep his cool and power on.

But this is the story that just about everyone already knows. If "42" struggles, it's often because it is content with breezing through the highlights of Robinson's early career and we're left with more of a toned down history lesson than anything else. Harrison Ford, who is great when boulders are rolling after him, struggles to get through some of the worst of writer/director Brian Helgeland's dialog and goes so far over-the-top he's hard to take seriously.

Boseman was a good choice for Robinson, though he also isn't given a movie-defining scene for him to truly sink his teeth into. Still, Boseman embodies the saintly Robinson with ease as he slips from one racial encounter to the next, though a wiser screenplay would have given Robinson more bouts of human emotion instead of playing to the legend.

Unlike "Lincoln," which held off on the expected speeches until the very end, "42" also barrels forward with heavy dialog that very well could inspire a few snickers from the audience. True, many of the things that happen in "42" are based on facts, but it's also a movie that lacks the audacity to delve into the deeper truths and racism that Robinson would have been exposed to at the time.

We get a few racial epithets and a pitcher who likes to throw at his head, but "42" often feels like we're coasting and getting the drive-by version of Robinson's heroics. By the time Robinson's teammate Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) wonders whether everyone will wear Robinson's number in the future, which of course happens once a year these days, it's easy to see "42" has given up its historical credibility. If anything, "42" needed a character like Kevin Costner's Crash Davis from beloved baseball movie "Bull Durham," if only to shake things up a bit.

But even with some glaring shortcomings, "42" succeeds because Robinson's story is simply too compelling in its own right. Those interested in the basics of what Jackie Robinson had to go through to break baseball's color barrier, particularly children, will get a CliffsNotes version that is mostly entertaining and occasionally powerful. More serious baseball fans or moviegoers might wish for a movie that didn't play it quite so safe, but the version of Robinson that we get in "42" is still inspirational.

Though it nearly flounders thanks to its simplicity and hokey dialog, "42" is saved because Robinson's true story is one of nearly unparalleled heroism, helping us overlook some of the biggest flaws of Helgeland's biopic. You may cringe and think you're watching a made-for-TV movie on occasion, but the legend of Robinson is too inspiring on its own to let an unimaginative script ruin the experience.

by RTT Staff Writer

For comments and feedback: editorial@rttnews.com

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