42, written and directed by Brian Helgeland, is a biographical film which tells the story of baseball pioneer and historical figure Jackie Robinson during his first two seasons in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. Not only do we get to encounter the racial discrimination that Robinson endured during the 1940’s, but we also follow the story of Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford, is an endearing character whose story is intertwined with Jackie’s as both men forge against the color barrier in Major League Baseball in order to make change. Harrison plays a memorable Rickey, who is both a man of God and baseball. Harrison’s gruff voice and demeanor is a perfect balance with his sensitive and fatherly side. Rickey chooses Robinson as the player whom will have the strength to withstand scrutiny and racism without lashing back.
Jackie Robinson: “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”
Branch Rickey: “No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back….”
Rickey claims the reason he is trying to break this unwritten code in the game is to win a World Series and to make more money. Later in the film, we learn the true reason behind his actions.
Chadwick Boseman plays Jackie Robinson, and his portrayal is genuine complete with baseball skills to boot. One memorable scene has Jackie angrily smashing bats in the hallway of Ebbets Field after the Philadelphia manager (Ben Chapman) verbally assaulted him while at-bat. Branch Rickey’s words and support help Jackie persevere and to turn the other cheek even when the world seems to be wanting to tear him down.
Another tender relationship we get to watch in this film is between Jackie and Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie). Rachel is always there to support Jackie, and her stability and supporting smile from the stands gives Jackie a reason to trudge on. Jackie wants to succeed in order to financially support his wife and young son.
As a writer I especially enjoyed the story of Wendell Smith played by Andre Holland. Smith was a African-American sportswriter who was battling racial barriers within the world of sportswriters. While Jackie Robinson dreamed of putting on a Dodgers uniform, Smith yearned to sit in the press box. We never get to see Smith sit in that coveted press box seat, but we learn that he later becomes a member of the BBWAA.
The beautiful cinematography of 42 includes the recreation of many of the ballparks of the era. The most spectacular scenes are those which are of Ebbets Field. The production designer, Richard Hoover, used computer technology combined with film footage of an old stadium (Engel Stadium) in Chattanooga, Tennessee in order to resurrect the essence of Ebbets. Brian Helgeland also used archival photos and blueprints of Ebbets Field in order to aid with the computer modeling. Even though Ebbets Field was torn down 53 years ago, Dodger fans like myself who never had the opportunity to see the original Ebbets Field can get a glimpse into what the iconic ballpark was once like. Ebbets Field is a character within the film as well, and the ballpark like Jackie will forever be an important part of both Dodgers history as well as American history.
One very poignant scene is the famous interchange between Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson in Cincinnati, Ohio on May 13, 1947. The Dodgers were on a road trip, and the home fans were particularly being tough on Jackie. Pee Wee Reese went over and placed his arm around Jackie in order to make a statement that caused the raucous crowd to silence. A young boy in the stands, who had been yelling out racial slurs along with his father and surrounding fans, realizes that his favorite player Reese has embraced Jackie.
Some moments in the film seem a bit overdramatic and almost melodramatic, and I would have liked to see a more period appropriate soundtrack.
42 is an American story of courage, love, and is a film that everyone can enjoy whether you are a baseball fan or not. It is fitting for most ages, and my six-year old enjoyed it as much as I did. Take note that there is racial slurs and strong language. The film is not only inspirational, but it is funny as well. A few pokes at Pittsburgh got me chuckling. The on-field shots are well done. We wince in pain as if the cleats which spike Jackie’s leg are puncturing our own.
As we celebrate Jackie Robinson Day this upcoming Monday, we now have this truly memorable film for not only entertainment purposes but also historic value. As Dodger fans, we can be thankful that the history of our team is one in which an American hero was a part of.
Pee Wee Reese: “Maybe Tomorrow we’ll all wear 42.”
Rating: 3 out of 4 baseballs