For any fan of baseball history, there are few moments more important to the game, and to the changing views of American society, than the introduction of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to even suit up and play Major League Baseball.
To this day, the MLB still celebrates Jackie Robinson day, a day in which every single player in the league wears number 42 on their backs to celebrate the trailblazer who changed the game forever when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It is completely unsurprising that there is a Robinson biopic, titled 42; it is more surprising that it took this long for there to be one.
42 is an all-around solid sports movie. It gives us our central characters, Jackie and Branch Rickey, the owner of the Dodgers who was so focused on winning and making money, that he decided to be the first professional baseball owner to break the colour barrier.
What 42 doesn’t do, however, is provide us with much of a supporting cast of characters. There are brief glimpses into the lives of the men who managed Robinson, in both Montreal (the Dodgers AAA affiliate), and Brooklyn, and there are glimpses of some of the Dodgers players. But that’s about it. We don’t get to know anything about them at all, and the moments of them finally realizing that Robinson is on their team, and that they need to stand up for him no matter what come across as fairly run-of-the-mill. There is the vitriol of some players, and coaches, and managers, and fans that exist, and Robinson needs to overcome these things.
But it all seems a little bit too Disney. I feel that the real story is much darker, much harsher, and much more impressive an accomplishment than 42 portrays. We still get it that he overcome the longest of odds to become a legend, but the whole story seems pretty cleaned up, when it could have been absolutely brutal. At times, it seems like the writers and director of the film were wanting to make something more, that transcended more than just the game of baseball, but were wrangled into making a feel-good sports movie that would appeal to the largest possible audience.
And there is the fault of 42. There are a thousand stories to tell about the arrival of Jackie Robinson, including what could have been much more focus on his teammates, and the rise of the Dodgers as a powerhouse team after his arrival. We are given the broad strokes of an incredible feat, and an incredible career. His time in Montreal is given a quick flyby, even though it historically was extremely important. His interactions and friendship with Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese is glossed over to a few brief moments in the final film.
But those are superficial beefs, I suppose. Starting to watch 42, I knew that the film was not going to produce a gritty retelling of the legendary ascent of one of the game’s best players, and the revolution of the sport that happened after his arrival. I knew that it would be rife with cliches, and not offer the depth, or breadth, of the story that I would be hoping for.
Regardless, this is a strong film. It tells the story, which is the most important thing. For those who are younger, and don’t know his story, or the lasting impact that it has had, 42 is a good place to start. The film has good performances throughout, and allows us to get the general idea of what was happening in that time, and why this feat is so impressive.
There are some really great moments in the film, those moments when you know that things are going to change, whether it is the attitude of the fans, or the owners, or the players themselves. The moment when Reese slings his arm over Robinson’s shoulders in front of a hostile crowd is one of those moments. And these moments are what make 42 so good: despite the desire to know more, and see more, we are given parts that really do justice to the story of Jackie Robinson.
At the end of the day, I liked 42 quite a bit. I don’t think it will soar to the heights of the greatest baseball movies of all-time, simply because I wanted more of the story. But it will stand as a good film about an important moment in the history of the game, and generally, it does a pretty good job of doing it.