Baseball films released outside of the U.S.A almost universally suffer the same fate; side stepping cinematic release for an life sentence in home entertainment. Brian Helgeland's 42 has suffered that same relegation, despite a captivating story and some dynamic performances. Set in the turbulent post war years 42 explores the origins of two titanic figures of Baseball; firstly Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), the first African American baseball player and later 'Hall of Famer'; and Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers who began the crusade to end the sport's segregation. 42 stands out because unlike many films in recent memory, it hinges upon a single dramatic centerpiece to elevate the rest of the film; and that scene is absolutely spectacular.
Writer/director Brian Helgeland has a great resume. As a director he's traversed popcorn (A Knight's Tale) and pulp (Payback); while his writing credits, which include Green Zone, Man on Fire, Mystic River, L.A Confidential and Assassins, are down right intimidating. Despite the conservative budget for 42, Helgeland uses great production design from Richard Hoover to avoid any clunky moments in the film that it's noticeable. The luscious greens of the fields, the thick stitching of the bygone uniforms and something majestic about those ancient feeling baseball stadiums play host to sporting civil rights.
42's peak is hit when Robinson takes the mound against the Philadelphia 'Phillies' and faces his most overt antagonist, their coach Ben Chapman. Alan Tudyk's Chapman is mind-blowing. Tudyk's forte for comedy, with his impeccable timing, has guised the potential for dramatic turns, until now. For those of you who adore the sweet and hilarious relief of Wash (Firefly/Serenity) or Wat threatening to 'fong' you (A Knight's Tale); clench up, because he's the kind of deplorable bigot that makes your skin crawl. Epithet after slur, the hate rains down on Boseman's Robinson. Watching Nicole Beharie's Rachel Robinson, who is the emotional barometer of the film, yearn for Boseman's attention, desperate to be his little escape from the storm typifies her enduring support for her husband. Harrison Ford's Branch Rickey winces and grits his teeth in the crowd, not only in disgust but in shame that this stain on his sport is unfolding before his very eyes. Once Robinson is able to get bat to ball, and get out of the furnace, he's cheated by a bad out call at first base and must retire to his dugout, being racially shamed by the entire stadium of brotherly love.
Boseman is electric. He's charged by the hate and he's ready to tear Tudyk's Chapman limb from limb. Instead he takes refuge in the tunnel from the dugout to the dressing rooms and smashes his bat against concrete wall. Helgeland's shot composition is impeccable here; in the dungeon like bowels of the stadium the sun's glare forms a wall of white light as the backdrop to this emotional and physical explosion. Boseman up until this point is defined with Robinson's ability to bob and weave through the hate. Seeing him get to the point of losing control passes the baton to Ford's Branch Rickey. Sidling in, from out of frame, wiping his character's glasses because of the glare is the subtle gesture that demonstrates Ford's immersion into the character. Rickey is far too civilised and humanistic to be able to wade in the muck with Boseman's Robinson in this moment, but the genuine comforting embrace is the life raft in this hurricane. Ford is at his understated best in this scene.
It's not without flaws though. There are moments where Helgeland is trying to portray the conflicted feelings of an entire generation in the forums of players wrestling with the reputational damage of playing with a 'black man,' that feel so frustratingly contrived. It could be the performances that require conveying emotional turmoil, or that the performers couldn't quite surrender to an authentic casual racism of the time. There's also a strange, underdeveloped Wendell Smith journalist character (played by Andre Holland) that feels like he was going to be the Carraway to Boseman's Gatsby that doesn't quite get supporting character or objective passenger.
42 uses the naturally dramatic sporting framework to tackle serious issues of racism and pathways to equality; Boseman and Ford are clearly carrying the team.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by Brian Helgeland Written by: Brian Helgeland Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford,Nicole Beharie, Christopher Meloni, Ryan Merriman, Lucas Black, Andre Holland, Alan Tudyk, Hamish Linklater
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