42, written and directed by Brian Helgeland, is based on the real-life story of Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson, the first African-American baseball player to play in the major leagues. Robinson's story is well known to many, but to anyone who isn't, 42 (Robinson's number when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers) will serve to acquaint them with the man and his achievements against the backdrop of the times he lived through. The cast is excellent and give outstanding performances, particularly when recreating the feel of the times and the way it felt to watch Robinson play.
The story begins in 1945, when Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (a deftly turned performance by Harrison Ford) makes the decision that his team is going to be the first major league baseball team to recruit and field a black player. He takes his time, going over the various prospects with his staff, and finally settles on a short-stop currently playing for a black league team, the Kansas City Monarchs, Jackie Robinson (terrifically played by Chadwick Boseman). The film then follows Robinson's career, starting with his being signed to Rickey's minor-league Montreal Royals for the 1946 season, and then his move up to the big league Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
One of the best things about 42 is that it does show just how racially divided American was in the years following WWII and how openly hostile - and acted upon - the racism was in those days. This is absolutely vital to the film in order to show just how daring - and risky - Rickey's decision was, and how daunting the challenge was for Robinson to was to step up to the plate and face the hostility of not only the crowds but also that of his own teammates as well.
As I said, the cast is excellent and there are too many fine performances to list them all. Harrison Ford is visibly having a ball in his best role in years as the garrulous, cigar-chomping but never wavering in determination Branch Rickey. Christopher Meloni (best known from TV's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) delivers in spades as the larger-than-life Dodgers manager, Leo Durocher. And Lucas Black turns in a deft performance as Robinson's Dodgers teammate, baseball legend Pee Wee Reese. Alan Tudyk gets the thankless - but important - job of playing Ben Chapman, the Philadelphia Phillies' manager who openly race-baits Robinson during a game. And to his credit, Tudyk carries it off brilliantly, filling the screen with everything that so desperately needing changing in America at that time. On the other side, Andre Holland's African-American sportswriter Wendell Smith, who has to sit with his typewriter balanced on his knees in the bleachers because they don't allow blacks in the news booth, is there to remind Robinson in his soft-spoken but clear-eyed way that "This isn't just about you." And Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson is supportive grace personified as she gives Jackie a calm center to turn to amid the storm swirling all about him.
But it is above all Chadwick Boseman's masterful portrayal of Robinson himself that carries the film, from the way in which he brings out the man behind the legend to the way in which he vividly recreates the way Robinson played the game. The scenes where Robinson repeatedly gets the best of one pitcher after another with his visually taunting, hands-twitching stealing of bases are almost worth the price of admission just by themselves.
My only complaint is in regard to Helgeland's direction and script. While there are many scenes and moments in 42 that are beautifully rendered, as a film it feels somewhat choppy, moving in a paint-by-numbers fashion to fill in one episode after the other but with no real smoothness or flow to it. And too often Helgeland seems to lack confidence in the story, choosing to gild the lily with scenes that are decidedly ham-handed in contrast to the moments of sheer grace that Robinson's story has in abundance. (I swear, some scenes are so heavy-handed one almost expects Keenan Ivory Wayans to suddenly appear on-screen shouting "Message!" the way he did in the over-the-top spoof Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood). That said however, please take all this with a grain of salt. 42 _is_ a good film. It might even be a very good film. But given the truly history-making nature of the story, and the remarkable performances by the highly talented cast, it could have been a _great_ film. I know that Helgeland has done excellent work as a screenwriter in the past, from 1998's L.A. Confidential for which he won an Academy Award to 2003's Mystic River for which he was nominated, with A Knight's Tale and Payback, which he also directed, in between. But his record since then has been decidedly spotty, with his only directing credit being the 2003 box-office bomb The Order and writing credits for less than stellar films like Man On Fire, the 2009 remake of The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, 2010's Robin Hood and Green Zone. While 42 will hopefully do better than any of those, it unfortunately only seems to continue Helgeland's slump as a writer and/or director.
Highly recommended to anyone wanting to know more about a critical era in major league sports and about the men who changed it forever.