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'42' review: Jackie Robinson story a hit, but no home run

Chadwick Boseman stars as Jackie Robinson in Warner

Chadwick Boseman stars as Jackie Robinson in Warner Bros. Pictures' film "42." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

The speeches start early in "42," a laudatory biography of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. In the movie's opening minutes, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, played by a jowly, avuncular Harrison Ford, seems almost divinely inspired by visions of a "colored" athlete.

"I don't know who he is or where he is," says Rickey, "but he's coming."

Nearly 66 years after Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field, it's easy to look back on him as a messiah. Despite public insults, death threats and entrenched racism even within his own team, Robinson maintained a Gandhi-esque calm, keeping his fists around his bat and consistently playing his best. He would become Rookie of the Year, an MVP and an All-Star. In 1997, Major League Baseball permanently retired his uniform number, 42, to honor his achievements.

Even non-fans know the general outline of Robinson's story. Does "42" have anything more to add?

Writer-director Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential") deserves credit for saluting Rickey as the man who put Robinson on the diamond, but this big-budget period piece is more concerned with burnishing a legend than dramatizing a life. Characters repeatedly invoke Robinson's historical impact as if his history had already been made. "I'm gonna be your Boswell," says reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland). Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) suggests, "Maybe tomorrow we'll all wear 42," foretelling the commemorative day in 2004 when just such a thing would happen.

Only Robinson, played by a likable but bland Chadwick Boseman, seems unaware of his significance. This may be intended to convey modesty, but it comes off as indifference. During some of Robinson's landmark victories for integration -- a gracious photo with race-baiting Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), an on-field display of affection from Kentucky-born Reese -- Boseman looks merely bemused, even slightly bored.

Bolstering the film is a fine support cast, led by a cigar-chomping Ford but including John C. McGinley as folksy sportscaster Red Barber, Christopher Meloni as bullheaded Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and Nicole Beharie as Robinson's fretful but steadfast wife, Rachel. "42" seems to get its details right, but its central figure remains more a symbol than a person.

PLOT The story of Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball's color barrier in 1947.

RATING PG-13 (language, mild violence)

CAST Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Nicole Beharie


BOTTOM LINE A solid drama, though it treats Robinson more as a symbol than a person. Ford, as Branch Rickey, breathes some life into the history lesson.


Movies on 4 more Baseball Hall of Famers

"42" joins these four other movies that told the life stories of members of the Baseball Hall of Fame:

THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES (1942) -- Gary Cooper memorably portrayed first baseman Lou Gehrig, with Teresa Wright giving an equally memorable performance as his wife.

THE BABE RUTH STORY (1948) -- William Bendix was the Yankees' Sultan of Swat; John Goodman also portrayed Ruth in "The Babe" (1992).

THE WINNING TEAM (1952) -- Ronald Reagan starred as Grover Cleveland Alexander, the pitcher who won 373 games and also battled alcoholism.

COBB (1994) -- Tommy Lee Jones starred as the irascible Ty Cobb -- told from the point of view of Cobb as an old, embittered man.

-- Andy Edelstein

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