'42' a hit, but not quite a homer

WHILE "Bull Durham" took us to the church of baseball, the Jackie Robinson movie "42" takes us to something more like church.

It's a sports movie, yes, but also a sincere religious picture that bathes its characters in heavenly shafts of light, and sends you out snapping your fingers to a rousing gospel number.

"42" is very specific, for example, on the nature of the bond between Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey and Robinson, handpicked by Rickey to become the man who would break baseball's color barrier, and thus provide for America, via the meritocracy of the baseball diamond, an example of how a just society should function.

"I'm a Methodist, Jackie's a Methodist, God's a Methodist," declares Rickey (Harrison Ford), explaining to underlings why Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) would be brought from the Negro Leagues.

Rickey reasoned that the man who'd integrate the racist and hostile major leagues needed to be more than a good baseball player (there were better players in the Negro leagues). He needed a man strong enough to endure the undisguised hatred that the game's first black player would surely endure. To put it in Rickey's terms, he didn't need a guy to turn the double play. He needed a guy to turn the other cheek.

Robinson: "You want a man who doesn't have the guts to fight back?"

Rickey: "I want a man who has the guts not to fight back."

Thus does Robinson become an inspirational figure whose nonviolent activism derives from his faith - an obvious precursor and prototype for the man who'd lead the formal civil-rights movement soon after.

"42" shortens its biographical consideration of Robinson to 1945-1947 - when he was signed by the Dodgers, seasoned briefly at its Montreal minor-league affiliate, then called up to the majors.

Biographical/character details are swift, efficient - we see that Robinson's sense of social justice is linked to his moral rectitude - he's religious, married (to Nicole Beharie), determined to be a devoted father.

They're a California couple, appalled by the segregation and hostility they meet in other parts of the country (a few incidents, like their mistreatment by an airline, are drawn from life).

But "42" is quick to bring Robinson to the majors, where he endures a mutiny among white teammates, (quelled by manager Leo Durocher, played by Christopher Meloni) and then goes on to run a gantlet of the league's most virulent racists.

Some reside, as you may have heard, in Philadelphia. The Phillies GM calls Rickey to tell him not to bring Robinson to the city - no hotel will board him. And the owner is correct - the Ben Franklin refuses to allow the Dodgers to stay.

On the field, Robinson endures the abuse of Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the worst sort of verbal harassment.

It's under Chapman's assault that Robinson comes closest to breaking, retreating to a dugout tunnel to wrestle with his self-doubt in the darkness, with moral support from Rickey, and perhaps another source. In the context of this movie there is little doubt where that shaft of light is coming from, and what it represents.

"42" is often too emphatic with some of these gestures - director Brian Helgeland fashions a series of Big Inspirational Moments, and underlines them with stirring music. It's unnecessary - Robinson's actions (and inactions) speak for themselves

The movie works best in less swollen sequences, making an unadorned example of the power of empathy - antagonists on Robinson's own team rally to him when his obstacles become theirs. Teammate Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) complains to Rickey of receiving a hate letter - Rickey opens a cabinet to show him the mountain of hate mail that Robinson has received. Reese responds with a legendary onfield gesture of brotherhood.

Much rides on Boseman's ability to humanize Robinson, and he does. He's expressive, he looks like a ballplayer and, as a relative unknown, melts into the iconic role.

Ford? Well, he steps outside his persona of quiet strength to try more mannered acting, and results are mixed.

And I'd have liked to see more of Beharie, who was so good in the little-seen "American Violet," and as Rachel could have opened a window to the man who kept so much of himself to himself.


Blog: philly.com/KeepItReel


Directed by Brian Helgeland. With Christopher Meloni, Hamish Linklater, Alan Tudyk, Lucas Black, T.R. Knight, Ryan Merriman, Harrison Ford, Andre Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Nicole Beharie. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for thematic elements including language).