Films on American sports linked directly or indirectly to history are an annual event. In today’s cinema, these leisure-paced lessons of bravery — and more often of racial discrimination — tell us of a simpler past and overcoming of substantial odds. But then, that is what a good sports film formula dictates: everyone loves the story of the underdog.
It’s not really a question of why Brian Helgeland’s 42 has it easy; the question is why even with all of the right ingredients (including Mark Isham’s grand background score) it feels passably significant.
The film 42 is about Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), an African-American pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs who is employed in the Brooklyn Dodgers by owner Branch Rickey (a cigar-chomping, twitched-lipped Harrison Ford in excellent form).
The year is 1945 as the initial narrative of archival footage tells us. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan have been defeated, and men — including some of the greats of baseball — are back on US soil. Amongst the returning soldiers is Jackie, a not-yet-that-popular baseball player who will go on to break the colour barrier in American baseball.
Jackie — a capable shortstop — has anger issues, which Rickey is quick to tell him will be his undoing in professional sports. It is good advice and one which Jackie is quick to absorb. But the absence of his anger issues is 42’s least frustrating plot point. What pulls it down is not Jackie’s conscious decision to step down, rather the film’s own inclination of stepping down for the sake of simplicity.
Helgeland’s screenplay is neatly governed by historical accuracies, moments of triumph and ethnic bias. In one early scene, Jackie and wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) have their airplane seats taken because she decides on going to the ladies room that has a ‘White (Women) Only’ sign in front of it.
While Helgeland’s script works (despite Jackie’s one-dimensional character), his direction is mostly composed of standard master shots and settles for being unmotivated and orthodox.
We really have seen this film before such as the subplots about reporter-cum-Chronicler Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) and his own struggle or Ford’s Rickey who reminds us why every sports film needs a star veteran as a supporting lead.
Released by Warner Bros and produced by Legendary Pictures, 42 is rated PG.