During the Great Depression, the American film industry saw the need for many a happy ending finding its way into the films of the Golden Years. Now might be another era that needs a gloriously innocent, uplifting, entertaining movie once in a while. After the ghastly carnage Monday at the Boston Marathon, a sporting event beloved by running enthusiasts the world over, there may well be a place for a movie as heart-warming and uplifting as 42, the story of how Jackie Robinson bravely faced vicious racism and became the first African-American to play in the previously all-white major leagues.
Directed by Brian Helgeland, the film is a beautifully made production, but the solid strength at its core is the sincere, soft-spoken, thoroughly invested performance of unknown actor Chadwick Boseman, as Jackie Robinson, who draws your attention throughout the film. And if Boseman’s Robinson is like the unblemished hero in a classic 1930s bio-pic, then the exquisitely charming Nicole Behaire as Robinson’s wife, Rachel, fits right in like an angelic Olivia de Havilland. Unfortunately, there’s Harrison Ford, whose hamming as Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey goes far beyond overacting into the realm of absurdity, but he redeems himself, for a moment, during his touching and understated “I love baseball” speech. Meanwhile, the art direction always makes 42 a feast for the eyes, and lovingly rendered baseball parks like Ebbets Field are golden settings for the suspenseful game re-enactments.
Inevitably, the film is filled with episodes of disgustingly cruel racism, but Robinson’s courage and pride tower over bigotry and, suitably and predictably, the film rises to a heroic climax accompanied by a blaring, triumphal musical crescendo. It’s the kind of triumphal moment we will see repeatedly this summer as superhero blockbusters flood cinemas across the country. But 42 has a jump on this year’s comic book fantasies. Without mechanical suit or display of superhuman violence, Boseman’s Jackie Robinson is a true superhero who kicks butt and defeats his enemies by playing a game to the best of his ability. In the film’s finest moment, Robinson leaves the plate after suffering ceaseless taunting from the racist manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he is caught in a tense dilemma: turn his rage upon his tormentor or walk away. This memorable moment may well be the best moment in any superhero movie this year.