I use the term ‘TV Movie-ish’ quite a bit. This is my simplified way of describing a movie as not being a sophisticated, complex telling of a story, but it’s more along the lines of a run-of-the-mill movie that feels like it would be more appropriate to watch on a television network Sunday evening broken up by commercials.
The movie is not that challenging or offers up anything that special, it may not even be very cinematic looking, but it’s a serviceable-enough project that does an adequate job with its subject matter.
This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad film, just that it falls short of being a big-screen, worthy experience and it leaves me with that gnawing feeling that ‘it could have been something great’. However, as it stands the final product would play just as well, maybe even better, sitting and watching it on the tube.
That was my reaction to 42.
This is the famous story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) becoming the first black player in Major League baseball. The controversy that would be hurled at him and Brooklyn Dodger owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) when Robinson stepped out on the all-white baseball field.
The abuse from fans, from other teams and from his fellow teammates Robinson would have to endure. The inspiration that would sweep over black baseball fans seeing one of their own finally playing America’s game. And inevitably Robinson’s acceptance by the establishment based on his athletic skills, breaking the color barrier and making his number 42 legendary in the sport.
That’s pretty much the movie. This is a mythic telling of Robinson’s experiences and a lesson in the history of what he did for the game of baseball and racial equality. It’s not a complex telling of the story. There are very bad people espousing their racial hatred towards him. Then there are good people who come to his support. It literally is a very black and white movie.
There are plenty of underdeveloped supporting characters. Robinson’s wife is there, but is nothing more than filling the supportive wife role and the relationship between them is very flatly portrayed. A black sports reporter, Rickey’s assistants, some of Robinson’s fellow players, they are all given their own thinly written subplots, along with Robinson’s newly arrived baby, but those characters and stories are never fully drawn out so they all come and go from the screen without leaving much of an impact.
The main relationship in the film is between Robinson and Rickey. Both Boseman and Ford are both good in their roles. Boseman is able to be convincingly effective on the baseball field and portraying Robinson’s anger that he must keep in check when he’s attacked for the color of his skin.
I was most surprised at Ford, he did a much better job than I thought he would. It’s kind of difficult for me to see him other than a leading action hero, but he manages to leave that screen image aside and actually does a decent acting job as Rickey. He’s got his gravelly voice and looks much older. His interactions with Robinson are the most interesting scenes in the movie.
When I say TV-Movie-ish I’m also talking about the presentation of the movie. Every shot is very clean and bright. From Alabama, to Florida to California to Brooklyn none of those locales are given a distinguishable look.
There are a few moments that standout visually – a scene of Robinson breaking down and Rickey consoling him both silhouetted in the dugout tunnel – but most of the movie doesn’t have any kind of style to it.
It’s just a very accessible movie. It’s meant to be inspiring and illustrate why Robinson was such an important figure not only in sports, but in history. There are moments that get a bit ham-handed, they come across as insincere and some of those ‘inspirational moments’ feel somewhat forced and the film doesn’t earn them legitimately.
Director Brian Helgeland makes 42 a decent enough story of Robinson and his first year in the big leagues, although it’s not a film I’m yearning to go back to and revisit. It’s a very by-the-numbers, bland telling of the story of Jackie Robinson.
I still can’t help but feel had this been in the hands of another director willing to take more risks and had a more unique vision for it it could have been something really, really special. It’s a very special story and it deserved a more special movie to tell it.