Jackie Robinson's story would feel melodramatic if it weren't entirely true. 42, so titled because it's the number that Robinson made iconic when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and went on to have a Hall of Fame career, all with the Brooklyn Dodgers, focuses exclusively on his ascent to and first full season in the big leagues.
This is an entirely obvious yet smart route to go because it allows the film's audience to connect with why Robinson remains so important to this day. Robinson, played by relative unknown Chadwick Boseman, was a supremely decent man and a supremely gifted baseball player, his mix of power and blazing speed (he once stole home in the World Series) making him the type of talent that is irresistible to fans. The Negro Leagues were chock full of players like Robinson, though, so 42 explores why he was a particularly good choice to make the sort of history he did. Branch Rickey, the man who signed Robinson, lays it out explicitly for him, and by extension us, when he tells Jackie that he wants someone "who has the courage NOT to fight back!" when he inevitably meets with overt and ugly prejudice.
Rickey is played by Harrison Ford, and he delivers the line with a ridiculous amount of bluster -- sounding like he's doing a bad impression of Burgess Meredith in Rocky, looking like he stole Sandy Cohen's eyebrows, wearing what looks like a limp version of the fedora he donned in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Over-the-top delivery and all, it sets the perfect tone for this particular character study, and I ate up every bit of it, perhaps against my better instincts.
Almost a decade prior to Brown v. Board of Education, Robinson was met not merely with intolerance, but also very real threats to his personal safety once he was signed by the Dodgers. The film highlights the latter, first when he's ordered to leave the field or risk arrest during a spring training game in Florida by a zealously racist county sheriff and then later when Rickey plops down a few folders of the hate mail Robinson has received in front of teammate Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black). It is no less powerful when it showcases the more benign racism Robinson faced, most notably when he is pushed almost to his breaking point by heaps of abuse from Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, played to great effect by Alan Tudyk.
The abuse and the very real danger were more than any one man should have had to bear, and yet it had to be one man. Robinson was a right choice (not THE right choice, per se) because of his quiet dignity and his sense of both personal justice and the great responsibility on his shoulders. He was a World War II veteran and a college graduate, and he was grounded by his relationship with his wife Rachel, played by Nicole Beharle. He was also a Hall of Fame-caliber player, which mattered, probably more than it should. This is a peculiar mixture of traits. There were probably others who had a rough approximation of them, and thus could have done what Robinson did, but I doubt there were many. This is the tacit and powerful message 42 delivers.
Other than Ford's portrayal of Rickey, I loved just about everything, from the inanity of Chapman's racial epithets to Boseman's portrayal of the prickly Robinson, from the great credit given to Rachel to the smaller details like old wool uniforms and defunct and destroyed ballparks. Seeing it the week after an active NBA player, Jason Collins, came out of the closet, it was easy to see why Jackie Robinson's story still means so much to so many people. Thankfully, 42 does that story plenty of justice.