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Halfway through the film we see Jackie Robinson hit the breaking point. After taking so much abuse and racial prejudice on the field, he leaves the baseball diamond for a brief moment and breaks a bat while screaming in the dugout tunnel. This is the message the film ‘42’ tries to send audiences: overcoming adversity is never easy. For Jackie Robinson, becoming the first African American player in Major League Baseball was an uphill battle many thought he could not handle when he first arrived on the scene. Jackie Robinson had the energy inside to fight back, but he stood his ground and let his game on the diamond do the talking. Bringing the real story of Jackie Robinson to the screen was not an easy task for Warner Brothers. And while it’s not a home run like some other notable baseball movies, ‘42’ is an exceptional portrayal of the legend.
‘42’ starts off quickly, showing Jackie Robinson’s skills on the base paths in the Negro Leagues, moves quickly to him being scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then signing with their minor league affiliate in Montreal. Some will complain that his rise to the big leagues in the film felt rushed, as Jackie Robinson’s life story was already growing before he played Major League Baseball.
Prior to playing in the Negro Leagues, Robinson was a four-letter athlete at UCLA and was court-martialed by the Army for refusing to move to the back of a military bus; he was found “not guilty” on all charges. But the purpose of this two-hour movie was to cover Robinson’s signing by the Dodgers and his first season in the major leagues and ‘42’ did a fine job keeping the focus on Robinson’s ability to handle racial prejudice on and off the field.
Jackie Robinson’s scenes on the field are done tremendously well, not because he was an ordinary player, but because he was always a threat on the base paths. Robinson was only caught stealing 30 times in his 10-year career as a Dodger, evidence of his elusiveness against opposing teams. In ‘42’ Robinson’s talent is shown in exciting motion as we see our hero unleash his speed around the bases, including occasionally stealing home, one of the rarest feats a baseball player can perform.
While Robinson’s ability as a baseball player is executed to near perfection, it takes a back seat to what goes on off the field. We see Jackie Robinson denied access to public places because of the color of his skin, some of his teammates circulating a petition to keep him off the team, and Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, who signed Robinson, fighting with other teams to allow him to take the field. All of these behind-the-scene moments work well the film, demonstrating that there is always something going on in baseball whether the team is on the field, off the field, or even in the off-season.
While ‘42’ is filled with plenty of great moments, it also contains a few missteps. The film only shows Robinson’s minor league season in 1946 with the Dodger’s farm team and his rookie season in 1947 as a Brooklyn Dodger. Even though Robinson won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1947, it would have been nice to see Robinson on the field when he was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949 or when he was a part of the Brooklyn Dodger’s World Series championship team in 1955. Also, ‘42’ might give the impression to viewers not familiar with Robinson that he was a power hitter. While it attempts to make the film feel more dramatic, in real life, Robinson was never a power hitter. Sure, he could score runners, but he never hit 20 home runs in a single season in his career. And without giving much away, the focus on a young kid’s fascination with Robinson was unnecessary as the film mentions time and time again how kids are looking up to Jackie Robinson and what he stands for. While ‘42’ does not have the epic feel of baseball movies like ‘The Natural’ or ‘Moneyball.’ the film shows Jackie Robinson’s contributions to the game of baseball in a highly respectable manner.
As far as performances go, Chadwick Boseman knocks it out of the park as Jackie Robinson. Most actors who play sports figures usually just stand there, read lines from the script, and look the part. But Boseman shows us the other side of sports icons where they don’t always feel “superhuman”: a man who had the spirit, patience, and humbleness as a player and person. Harrison Ford gives a fine performance as Dodgers’ GM Branch Rickey while the rest of the supporting cast in ‘42’ deliver above-average performances in their roles.
It’s great to finally see the story of Jackie Robinson being told on the big screen. ‘42’ is a film that everyone should watch because of its importance and historical reference in a time where racism was still at a high peek. Jackie Robinson was an American legend and it’s hard to believe people still don’t know his story and how he forever changed the game of baseball. ‘42’ is a solid triple in the score box and before it’s over, it just might be one of the year’s best films, especially in the minds of baseball fans.