THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Own 42 on Blu-ray Combo Pack and Digital Download 7/16
I neither know nor care much about baseball, but the story of Jackie Robinson is fascinating no matter what. Robinson broke the color barrier, becoming the first African-American player in Major League Baseball. His story has been told onscreen before, in 1950's The Jackie Robinson Story (in which he played himself). It's told again now in 42 and, despite working perhaps a bit too hard to be inspiring at all times, it's told well.
The film begins with Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) deciding that he wants to bring a black player onto the team. His liberal philosophy is only part of the reasoning behind it; mostly, he sees money to be made by having a black player on a team from an area with a large African-American population. Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is the guy he picks. It's a good choice. Robinson is fearless on the field, taunting pitchers and stealing bases with expert skill. Of course, there is much resistance along the way. First, the rest of the Dodgers have to deal with their own prejudices. There are also fans, other teams' players, and even a particularly racist Philadelphia Phillies coach (Alan Tudyk) to contend with. Rickey advises Robinson to ignore it all – which he does, although it's seldom easy.
42 is smart enough to know it has an inherently good underdog story to work with, and it doesn't screw that up. The movie shows the prejudice Jackie Robinson faced both on the field and off, creating a lot of drama in the process. The tensest scene finds that Phillies coach repeatedly yelling racial epithets at Robinson, who is trying to bat. There's no doubt that moments like this work on you, making you want to cheer the hero and hiss the bad guy. At every level, 42 gets you emotionally engrossed in the tale.
Chadwick Boseman, a relative newcomer, is terrific in the lead role. Because Jackie Robinson never snapped, even when under immense pressure, Boseman has to convey a mixture of strength and vulnerability happening simultaneously. He does so magnificently, showing us how the character absorbs everything, yet also mentally processes it and gets beyond it. This is a great piece of subtle, interior acting. The big surprise, though, is how good Harrison Ford is. Completely disappearing into character – thanks, in part, to prosthetics and a deep, growling speech pattern – Ford does some of the best work of his career. His Branch Rickey is part idealist, part businessman. He takes Jackie under his wing, revealing a path through the hurdles that pop up in front of them. I've always liked Ford (he was Han Solo and Indiana Jones, for crying out loud), but in recent years he's taken roles that are very firmly in his wheelhouse. This time, he ventures outside and turns in a memorable performance in the process.
The only area in which 42 stumbles is in the way it constantly calls attention to its own feel-good nature. The inspirational music is constantly swelling, and the film definitely has a cheerful-even-in-the-face-of-adversity, Blind Side-esque tone. (It's better than that movie, though.) For many years, Spike Lee had planned to make a Jackie Robinson biopic, but he was never able to bring it to fruition. I liked 42 a great deal, although I suspect a Spike Lee take would be a little edgier, a little more hard-hitting, a little more willing to push things further in showing the racism Robinson faced. In other words, 42 wants to make you feel uplifted by showing you the triumph, when perhaps the best version of this story would really take you through the dirtiest of the dirt first.
Having said that, what writer/director Brian Helgeland does with 42 is still admirable. The baseball scenes are beautifully shot, putting you right there on the field. The performances are uniformly strong, and the manner in which Jackie Robinson's story is told does send you away with a lump in your throat. Even if it isn't the most in-depth telling of Robinson's extraordinary journey, it is nonetheless a marvelously entertaining tribute to a very important man.
( out of four)
42 will be released on Blu-Ray combo pack, DVD, and as a digital download on July 16. The film will also be available on a variety of VOD platforms.
There are three featurettes on the Blu-Ray, each running about 10 minutes. “Stepping Into History” features Helgeland, Ford, and Boseman (among others) discussing their approach to bringing this remarkable true story to the screen. “Full Contact Baseball” looks at the training the actors went through in order to make the on-field scenes so authentic. Both of these mini-documentaries are interesting, if not especially detailed. The best segment is “The Legacy of Number 42,” which examines Jackie Robinson's ongoing influence as both sports hero and icon of racial equality. It serves as a perfect companion piece to the movie itself.
42 has been beautifully transferred to Blu-Ray; it looks gorgeous. Sound quality is outstanding too, often making you feel as though you're right there in the stadium.
42 is rated R for thematic elements including language. The running time is 2 hours and 8 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com! Paperback and Kindle editions also available at Amazon.com!