Film and TV

42's Jackie Robinson story is no baseball diamond in the rough

A likable hagiography as nuanced as a plaque at the Baseball Hall of Fame, Brian Helgeland's Jackie Robinson bio 42 finds a politic solution to the challenge Quentin Tarantino faced last year with Django Unchained: how to craft a crowd-pleasing multiplex period piece whose villain is, essentially, "all white people."

Helgeland solves this by being ingratiating, sometimes too much so. A newsreel-style opening offers the historical context Hollywood can't trust high schools to have provided; in it, narrator Andre Holland toasts to "the greatest generation" — an honorific that takes on ironic weight as the film amasses its considerable power. Sure, they licked Hitler, but how can we call these folks the greatest Americans ever when they freed up their afternoons to head down to the ballpark and shout "Nigger!" at Jackie Robinson?

"I realize that attitude is part of your cultural heritage," Harrison Ford rumbles as Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to a minor-league coach who expresses distaste about taking Robinson on with the Montreal Royals, previously a whites-only team. ("Montreal Royals": Has so much major-league failure ever been built into a single name?) That coach comes around, because he and Rickey — to flip a racist phrase of the day — are each one of the good ones, white folks who transcend their raising and become credits to their race.

In the first half, grand moments of Robinson's life (and American history) drift past like parade floats: well crafted, incidentally arresting, but not strung together into a dramatic narrative. Chadwick Boseman, who stars as Robinson, at first seems given only two things to play: quiet confidence at the plate and even quieter stoicism when insulted by white people. He aces both, but he and the movie both get more interesting the closer Robinson gets to the Dodgers and Ebbets Field — here a video-game re-creation that never quite fools the eye.

In the majors, we have a story, one that grows more and more compelling right up until the ridiculously protracted climactic slo-mo base-running. Some Dodgers revolt against Robinson's arrival, hotels refuse to book the team on the road, and then there are the death threats, the pitchers aiming for his face, and the Philadelphia coach who actually shouts, "You don't belong here! Get that through your thick monkey skull!" A dusty intimacy distinguishes the baseball scenes, which are excellent, if abbreviated. Robinson's duels with pitchers are especially involving, both at the plate and on base, where he harrows the bastards like Bugs Bunny might Elmer Fudd.

As Robinson takes the white world's abuse, Boseman's eyes moisten, redden, and finally seem to scab over with anger and hurt. Those scabs get ripped off, once, courtesy of that Philly coach and a couple of tough at-bats. Boseman — so adept at holding back, at suffering — at last gets to rage. Off the field, he shatters a bat and howls, a moment of welcome rawness that Helgeland immediately balms with avuncular words from Ford's pleasantly absurd Rickey. In the role, Ford plumbs the depths of his voicebox and phlegms up his breathing; he sounds like Walter Matthau doing Nixon. After the fightin'-senior nonsense of that last Indiana Jones movie, he's finally playing an old man for real, and he never even comes close to punching anybody.

Rickey insists that the only color he cares about is green, as in the money black ballplayers are bound to bring in. For most of the film, he's a free-market integrationist, a best-case example of the argument that the greater good is yoked to the invisible hand.

Boseman mostly manages to play a flesh-and-blood man despite 42's attempts to present him as a statue just unveiled. Helgeland limits the scope to Robinson's first major-league season, so we're spared the usual biopic rush. Another boon: Robinson's marriage is a happy one, and Nicole Beharie, playing his wife, gets to smile and talk baseball rather than endure the usual long-suffering bride-of-the-famous-man routine.

Still, the movie sugars up Robinson's story, and like too many period pieces, it summons some vague idea of a warmer, simpler past by bathing everything in thick amber light, as if each scene were one of those preserved mosquitoes that begat the monsters of Jurassic Park.