out of Five
Running time: 128
Powerfully emotional and impressively acted, 42 is a superbly made biopic that tells the important story of one of the most significant figures in American history.
What's it all about?
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland, 42 is a biopic of baseball player Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), who made history by becoming the first black Major League player when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The film begins in 1945, with cantankerous, religious Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) deciding to challenge the segregation laws that cover most of the country by choosing Robinson from a list of candidates from the Negro League and announcing his intention to sign him to the Dodgers.
Needless to say, Rickey's decision proves controversial and Robinson encounters racism and opposition everywhere he turns, from the rival teams and the crowds in the stadiums to the members of his own team. However, Robinson is worthy of the challenge, refusing to rise to the bait he faces every day, aided by sound counsel from Rickey and the support of various characters, including his loving wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), specially assigned black sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) and the Dodgers' bullish manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni).
Boseman (previously best known for his TV work) is terrific, delivering a sensitive and quietly dignified performance that helps us understand exactly what Robinson had to go through and the toll it must have taken; his one private breakdown scene is extremely moving. He also brilliantly captures Robinson's cheekily provocative playing style, something that would probably have pissed off the opposing players even if he had been a white man.
42’s supporting cast are equally good, particularly Ford, who seizes the rare opportunity to play a character part and knocks it out of the park as a result; the various scenes where he takes people to task for their bigotry are definite highlights. In addition, there's strong work from Beharie as Rachel and enjoyable turns from Holland, Durocher and Lucas Black as shortstop Pee Wee Reese, whose iconic real-life moment of public support for Robinson is powerfully recreated here.
Helgeland's powerfully moving script doesn't hold back on its presentation of racism – it's ugly and it's everywhere, particularly during an extended sequence of on-the-field abuse from rival player Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk); there are also heartbreaking moments such as a little boy emulating the racist abuse shouted by his father. The effect of this is to heighten the emotional impact of every tiny gesture of support that Robinson encounters, whether from his teammates or (white) members of the public.
On top of that, Helgeland captures some brilliant baseball moments and the film is further heightened by some impressively detailed period production design work and a stirring score from Mark Isham.
42 is an important and thoroughly enjoyable sports biopic that pushes all the right buttons, thanks to a sharply written script, engaging direction and a pair of terrific performances from Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford. Highly recommended.