'42': Jackie Robinson has to share the spotlight with Branch Rickey ★★ 1/2

Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips explains why it doesn't surprise him that "42" won the weekend box office. (Posted on: April 15, 2013)

"42," writer-director Brian Helgeland's carefully tended portrait of Jackie Robinson, treats its now-mythic Brooklyn Dodger with respect, reverence and love. But who's in there, underneath the mythology? Has the movie made Robinson, a man who endured so much in the name of breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier and then died before his 54th birthday, something less than three-dimensionally human?

I'm afraid so. This is a smooth-edged treatment of a life full of sharp, painful, inspiring edges. Helgeland tips the narrative balance in the direction of Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, played here in a sustained grumble by Harrison Ford, opposite Chadwick Boseman's implacable Robinson. The latter's story cannot be brought to life without Rickey's, and vice versa; their fates and their places in history belonged to one another.

But "42" settles for too little, for being an attractive primer, an introduction to the legend of Robinson and the faith that saw him through. The movie doesn't condescend. Rather, it protects and enshrines.

Helgeland focuses on 1945, '46 and '47, the years in which Robinson married, got signed by the Dodgers for their minor league affiliate in Montreal and then, momentously, swung his way into 20th-century heroism as the first African-American in pro baseball. Boseman has the right stuff to take on Robinson. The movie allows him scant opportunity to prove as much. After each new encounter with prejudice and racism, Helgeland shows us the man who soldiered on without losing his composure, certainly not to the degree so many were hoping he'd lose it.

Yet we spend so little private time with this private man. We see on screen, with Nichole Beharie as Robinson's adoring wife, Rachel, a dream of a marriage. Some of the stresses are acknowledged, in passing. Some of them.

As for Ford, he's fun. He gets all the good zingers while everyone else stands around looking either impressed, or aghast, or discreetly angry. Rickey may well have once said, "You practically nursed race prejudice at your mother's breast!" to a racist team manager, or something like it. The way the line drops itself in the scene in question, however, feels screenwriterly in the extreme. Helgeland has talent ("L.A. Confidential"), but the "42" script has the tentative air of a project watched very, very closely by Robinson's survivors.

For better or worse, a couple of supporting players steal the movie. As Leo Durocher, Dodgers coach and controversial horn dog, Christopher Meloni injects a jolt of energy. And as announcer Red Barber, John C. McGinley curbs his usual outsized exuberance to nail, with perfect period inflections, the play-by-play commentary featuring such phrasing delicacies as "chin-wag."

"Like our savior," growls Ford's Rickey at one point, after Boseman's tightly wrapped Robinson has eaten his latest load of racial epithets, "you gotta have the guts to turn the other cheek." I don't recall Robinson's rejoinder, but it's likely he didn't have one; there are times in "42" when Robinson appears confined to the dugout of his own biopic. Maybe this approach is justified: In Robinson's 1972 autobiography, as quoted recently in a New York Times piece, Robinson wrote: "Today as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey's drama, and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made."

Hints of that man, that complicated hero, can be detected in "42." But only hints.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'42' -- 2 1/2 stars'
MPAA rating:
PG-13 (for thematic elements including language)
Running time: 2:08
Opens: Friday

CHICAGO

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