42RobinsonIt’s hard to believe that as we approach the 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking baseball’s color barrier, 42 is just the second movie — and the first of the modern era — to have brought his tale to the big screen. 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story starred none other than Robinson himself in the title role, and while the film was well-regarded critically and certainly still retains some of its virtues even today, its immediacy to the events in question did not allow the filmmakers to put the story in the proper historical context.

Efforts to do so got underway several decades ago. It was long a dream project of Spike Lee’s, and in the mid-90s, Robinson’s widow, Rachel, even hand-picked Lee to produce and direct, with Denzel Washington slated to don the now-famous No. 42. The plan was to release the film in 1997 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Jackie’s debut. It’s interesting to speculate as to which direction the controversial and innovative Lee would have taken the film, but unfortunately, it never got off the ground.

Instead, we get 42 from writer-director Brian Helgeland here in 2013. While he no doubt possesses some impressive screenplay credentials on his résumé — most notably L.A. Confidential and Mystic River — Helgeland unfortunately doesn’t fare as well in the director’s chair (his best film to date is A Knight’s Tale). Fortunately, Helgeland manages to clear that relatively low bar with 42, succeeding with the film’s core objectives. Though this is a well-acted movie brimming with impressive period detail, a few glaring shortcomings ultimately make 42 just a good movie and not a great one.

As a writer, perhaps Helgeland’s best choice is to limit the film’s scope to 1946 — Robinson’s first season in integrated baseball with the minor league Montreal Royals — and ‘47 — his rookie year in the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers. While including the full arc of Jackie’s playing days and post-baseball career would have no doubt been interesting, this is ultimately about the historic impact he had in breaking the color line in the face of widespread opposition and racism, and Helgeland does well to focus on that. Similarly, the decision to devote nearly equal footing in the narrative to the pivotal role that Dodgers executive Branch Rickey played in not only orchestrating — but perhaps even more importantly — sustaining Robinson’s achievement is a sound one.

Flat performances by the lead actors would have sunk this film, but 42 rests comfortably on the strong shoulders of Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford. This may prove a breakthrough role for the relatively unknown Boseman, who, aside from a small part as Floyd Little in The Express, has been restricted to guest-starring roles on TV. Not only does Boseman bear a strong resemblance to Robinson while in uniform, but he uncannily captures Jackie’s signature running style on the basepaths. Boseman also portrays his character’s inner fire and strength as he is forced to endure racist verbal abuse from fans, opposing players and even those within his own locker room.

42Rickey

Playing the gruff-voiced, cigar-chompin’, larger-than-life Branch Rickey, it would have been easy for Harrison Ford to have spent the duration of the running time chewing on the scenery. Though he no doubt enjoyed the colorful part, to Ford’s credit, he resists that scenery-chewin’ urge, effectively communicating both Rickey’s moral and commercial motivations and clever, confident personality. It can be a little distracting to look at Ford’s prosthetic eyebrows at times, and his voice arguably isn’t quite graveley enough, but this is easily the veteran actor’s best performance in a good 15 years. Nicole Beharie (as Rachel Robinson) and Christopher Meloni (as Dodgers manager Leo Durocher) also shine in supporting roles.

Unfortunately, as strong as its performances are, 42 suffers from some lackluster behind-the-scenes work by its crew. The score by Mark Isham — who hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since 1992 for a reason — is agonizingly bad. It’s simultaneously cheesy and generic and would have felt more at home in feel-good Disney schlock like Angels in the Outfield. The editing is also rather erratic — subplots such as Rickey bringing aboard Durocher’s replacement Burt Shotton (Max Gail) or Rachel Robinson hiring a babysitter for her infant son — are introduced and then abandoned. I suspect a great deal of footage got left on the cutting-room floor to pare the movie down to its 128-minute running time.

Rather surprisingly, this is a legitimately funny film — to a fault. There’s certainly nothing wrong with some moments of comic relief here or there, and the real-life Rickey and Durocher were certainly men known for their quick wit. But humor pervades this film in nearly every scene, which inevitably ends up undermining the source material’s dramatic heft. Near the end, in a scene of on-field triumph for Robinson that is clearly designed to serve as an emotional crescendo, the moment is interrupted by the quip of an ex-teammate, who bemoans his fate that he’s now toiling for the Pirates in Pittsburgh. The line may be amusing, but it’s completely out of place.

This comic bent is most likely attributable to the 42’s positioning as a family film. While people of all ages should know about Robinson’s story, in going for a PG-13 rating rather than the hard R its subject material warrants, things end up feeling too soft and neutered. Plenty of racial abuse is heaped on Robinson — most notably from Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) — but in 42, it feels inauthentic without accompanying expletives. (This speaks to a larger issue. How the MPAA can feel the n-word, which is uttered countless times, is less offensive than the f-bomb is beyond me.) In one scene, violence against Robinson is only implied. Rickey receives death threats by mail, but they feel too tame, and the film curiously does not make mention of the multiple threats Robinson actually received that he would be shot from the stands if he took the field.

Yes, Robinson’s story does feature the familiar family-film trope of triumphing over adversity, but this was a man who made history under circumstances both ugly and dangerous, and it’s a shame this wasn’t reflected in its cinematic treament. It may not have had as wide a demographic appeal had it opted for a darker tone, but 42 would have surely been truer to the real-life danger Robinson faced and a stronger movie to boot.