It seems fitting that a film about the person some would consider the most important man ever to play a Major League Baseball game lands on Blu-ray disc the very same day the 2013 MLB All Star Game will take place. Movies like “42” are special because they tell a critical story, yet simultaneously inspire you to want to know more about a subject with many layers to it. And during a time where many look at America’s pastime to be a break from their otherwise grueling day-to-day lives, “42” helps to remind us that the game we love is more entrenched in our history than virtually anything else.
“42” is the best sports film since “Moneyball.” It’s intriguing, entertaining and funny, all while dealing with a serious topic that won’t ever leave our consciousness. Perhaps most important of all is how it weaves its intricate characters and performances together with a pleasantly catchy screenplay to deliver an experience so important it should be shared with children and adults alike.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, you know he was the first Black man to play professional baseball. You also probably know he did so under some less than popular clouds, and that his reception was initially lukewarm at best. But it wasn’t Robinson’s skin color that saved his footing on a fairly unstable path. It was his skill as a ballplayer and integrity as a human being, all of which are given more than adequate face time during “42.”
It should be noted that “42” is not a documentary. We don’t begin with young Jackie in diapers and end with old Jackie reminiscing about his long gone playing days. Instead, we’re led through a somewhat narrow window two-and-a-half year window that begins after World War II and ends before the next decade arrives. We see Robinson’s career elevate from the Negro leagues to the minors and ultimately the majors, all against a mirror of Jim Crow that overshadows the American passion for the game in a dark and tilted dynamic.
The film begins with Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) making the decision to sign a Black baseball player into his organization’s farm system. Rickey is old, haggard and a hard ass in every sense of the word, probably due in large part to his mediocre career in professional baseball as a player and manager. As he chain smokes cigars and defends his desire to recruit a talented athlete regardless of skin color, sidekick Harold Parrott (T.R. Knight) scours the ranks, ultimately finding Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) from the Negro leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs. Passing on the likes of Satchel Page and Roy Campanella, Rickey calls Robinson to Brooklyn, offering him an attractive contract to start in the minors and work his way up. Rickey makes it clear that Robinson will, unsurprisingly, have to endure intense racism and scrutiny from fellow players, managers, the media and fans. When Robinson asks if he “want(s) a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back,” Rickey clarifies, stating that he “want(s) a player that’s got the guts not to fight back.”
After Robinson proposes to his girlfriend Rachel (Nicole Beharie), things change rapidly. Black sports journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) meets him in Florida to chronicle his Montreal Royals tryout. Robinson’s new managers force him to play first base instead of his more natural shortstop. Other minor league teams in the south refuse to let Robinson on their field because he is Black, while he and his wife come to experience Jim Crow first hand with separate bathrooms, hotels and seating in restaurants. Rickey proves to be an accessible mentor throughout, staying in touch with Smith and Robinson as his talent and success on the field propel him to a roster spot with the 1947 Dodgers.
Robinson endures hate and prejudice just about everywhere he turns, and it only magnifies itself during his transition to the pros. Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) belittles him to the point of tears, and the Dodgers are inconvenienced when a hotel they wish to stay in rejects them simply because of his presence. Robinson holds his head high and maintains his composure, due in large part to Rachel’s support and Rickey’s passion for doing the right thing. The Dodgers eventually clinch the National League pennant, and “42” wraps up its 128 minute run time with updates on the careers and lives of those it prominently featured.
The two things that really help make “42” such a great film are its performances and its attention to detail. Sure, there are a few historical inaccuracies here and there (heck, have you ever watched a Hollywood film from the mid-1970s onward that didn’t have a few of these?) but they aren’t glaring enough to detract from the film’s overall emphasis. Boseman and Ford are extremely well cast, to the point where one (or maybe even both) could score an award or two from one of the seemingly endless organizations that offer them. Boseman is tall and authoritative, yet vulnerable in a variety of ways that validate his role as a person first, husband second and athlete third. His keen ability to balance emotions and skills on and off the field add to his diversity on screen, and lend freshness to a man who many know of but don’t necessary know a ton about. Ford very clearly doesn’t put up with any garbage, and he wants you to know it. He’s stern, but not to the point where he is heartless. In fact, it is his humanity that drives the big picture message behind “42” home. Ford isn’t all that active these days, but in this role, he’s about as convincing as he’s ever been.
Beharie is excellent as Robinson’s wife. She offsets him so well, and the chemistry presented on screen is pretty authentic. Unafraid of those who stand in her family’s way, she becomes Robinson’s go to for emotional stability and support. Holland is a badgering journalist first and foremost, but he’s able to relate to Robinson in a personal regard that rises organically and with obvious zeal. Other strong performances include John C. McGinley as the unmistakable Red Barber, Lucas Black as Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, Brad Beyer as pitcher Kirby Higbe (who in the film circulates a petition among the Dodgers against Robinson’s presence, only to be later traded for refusing to play alongside him) and Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, the Dodger manager who is suspended for his infidelity. The utmost delicacy is exhibited throughout “42,” but somehow the film still hits its emotional high and low notes in a manner that maintains your attention and communicates the historical significance of what you’re watching unfold.
The details feel pretty spot on from beginning to end. As “42” runs its course, we see lots of specifics not overlooked. Costumes are sharply worn and set, along with the exterior shots of stadiums, buses and hotels. The dugouts and locker rooms are less than pristine, while the playing fields themselves look polished with not a single blade of grass out of place. The unmistakable sound of a typewriter, the puff of a cigar and the sound of fingers moving on a rotary pay phone may seem minor, but in “42” they are executed with real sincerity. Director Brian Helgeland, as well as those who supported the costumes, set design and sound, are all at the summit with their work on this period piece that enlivens a time already passed by.
Superior balance is on display throughout “42.” We don’t only get to learn about the racism Robinson had to put up with, or see so much of Rickey we wonder when he’s going to keel over from his latest cigar. The film is of course Robinson’s story, but it manages to successfully tell more than a half dozen others that carry their own weight. Robinson’s relationships with his wife and with Rickey are central themes, but not so much so you’re quick to forget the stress and racism he had to strive against. And, from what “42” puts forth, Robinson was also a damn fine ball player! We learn that Robinson was picked for this task because he fit the job description in every manner possible, including having the needed ability as an athlete. The intense struggles depicted throughout the film itself aren’t over exaggerations, but instead vivid details on display for us to look back to and reassess. Because in history’s terms, the 1940s weren’t really that long ago.
“42” works on multiple levels and is more than just a film. It’s a story about a critical time in our history that demanded we all be better for one another. Unsurprisingly, that meant someone had to carry the burden, and approach it in a way that helped us all desire to be better for those around us. Jackie Robinson was that someone, and if you didn’t think it was because he held his own on and off the field, “42” will help you to see the light.
“42” is presented in a 2.40:1 1080p High Definition Blu-ray video transfer that is extremely strong. The images successfully connote we’re looking into the past, but they’re vivid and clear enough that you can’t help but know the lens you’re using is as modern as it can be. Coloration is very good here, with white shirt collars popping and dark suits working in direct contrast. Natural light was very well utilized, and the scenes where games are being contested stick out in my mind due to their quick editing and sharply cut shots of players leaping, sliding and playing mind games with their opponents. The whole film is pretty clear and doesn’t have any issues with grain or blur, which leaves your attention to enjoy the story and its experience.
An English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack is available, and it gives “42” a real edge. The music is very well placed, and helps to enhance the drama without overdoing it. Vocals are easy to pick up on and most of the dialogue doesn’t require any strain to hear. I appreciated how the sound helped to make some of these large ballparks feel smaller, especially given the fact that you could hear most of the negatives being hurled toward Robinson word for word. Natural background noise has its place during “42,” and it enhances the film’s ability to convey emotion, be it good or not so good. The sound deepens the film’s experience, and I appreciated the ease with which I could hear both a camera’s shutter closing and Robinson’s bat cracking against a baseball. Other audio options include Dolby Digital 5.1s in French and Spanish, while subtitle offerings are English, French and Spanish.
There are three featurettes provided: “Stepping into History,” “Full-Contact Baseball” and “The Legacy of the Number 42.” The press release notes “Blu-ray and Digital Download include exclusive behind the scenes interviews with Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman,” so watch for this content also. The version Warner Bros. sent my way included the film on Blu-ray disc, standard definition DVD and UltraViolet for streaming and downloading to mobile devices. The featurettes weren’t as deep with their content as I’d have predicted or preferred.
A Final Word:
The film features two boys at different points: one Black who chases after Robinson’s train while it pulls away from the station and admires him as a ballplayer, the other white who, in modeling his father’s behavior, screams the N-word at him during an at bat on the road. These second and third level perspectives are what make “42” special, because we learn the Black boy advances into a successful professional baseball career due to Robinson’s role modeling, leaving the white boy to represent powerful hate that can withstand any integration efforts. “42” doesn’t work all that hard to provide commentary, which is excellent because this effort would have distracted from Robinson’s story. It’s a look into an extremely important era in sports and American history, where a single man’s skill on the field, combined with his courage and determination off it, helped to impact countless generations and policies thereafter. “42” is a great film, and I look forward to another viewing with increased interest.