It’s hard to believe there’s never been a movie made about Jackie Robinson, outside of The Jackie Robinson Story from 1950. That movie at least had the great baseball Hall of Famer playing himself. But Robinson’s life, a remarkable journey of an African American who broke baseball’s color barrier and played for the Montreal Royals and Brooklyn Dodgers, is long overdue for a film bio.
Spike Lee reportedly spent years trying to get a film about Robinson made but was turned down by studio executives, who wouldn’t allow him a reasonable budget and didn’t believe a film about a black baseball hero would sell. Finally, Brian Helgeland, an Oscar winning screenwriter and sometimes director, wrote and helmed this affectionate tribute to Robinson and managed to cast Harrison Ford in an unlikely supporting role for star power. The result should have been one of the finest of baseball movies but instead is only great in parts.
Newcomer Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson, portraying his life during his tough debut season as a professional ball player during the 1947 season with the Dodgers. According to the film, Major League Baseball in 1947 had 400 players and 399 of them were white, resulting in Robinson’s brilliant athleticism and love for the game being constantly overlooked by racist team players (on the opposing team as well as his own) and fans. Ford plays Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ manager who ignored the country’s racial segregation and brought Robinson into his team, for reasons both financial and personal.
For the first 20 minutes, the film felt like a lost cause. The establishing scenes are so bland and hokey, the movie itself appears to have been made in the 1940’s. It helps that the scenes on the baseball diamond are engaging, though other baseball movies have made the game look far more exciting and cinematic than what Helgeland comes up with.
The casting of Ford as Dickey will likely divide many in the audience, as the often understated actor here gives an often hammy performance, often sounding like a Clint Eastwood impression, down to the growls and curmudgeonly attitude. But Ford’s performance and the film itself grow stronger, once we get to the darker aspects of the story.
Boseman captures Robinson’s fierce determination to keep the casual racism of those around him from ruining his game or his inner reserves. Yet I never felt like the screenplay lets us know who he is. Ditto his wife Rachel, played endearingly by Nicole Beharie, nor his marriage. No mention is made of his military career, childhood, education or children.
I’m glad the film has as many scenes of action on the baseball diamond as it does, but 42 only portrays a sliver of Robinson’s life. Robinson’s achievements needed a longer, fuller movie.
There is a powerful scene at the midpoint, where the racist coach of an imposing team (bravely played by Alan Tudyk) viciously taunts a composed but flustered Robinson, who unloads his barely contained rage out of eyesight. All of Ford’s scenes with Boseman demonstrate writing and acting so good, it’s like seeing glimpses of a better, edgier drama. There’s also a nice turn by Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, one of Robinson’s few teammates in his corner and a handful of crowd-pleasing moments shine through in this admirable but overly formulaic film.
I’d still like to see Spike Lee’s take on this story. At one point, Robinson says, “you will remember me.” Robinson, yes. This movie, not so much.
Rated PG-13/128 min