I love baseball movies. To be honest, I love sports movies as a whole, but baseball movies in particular (it is perhaps needless to say that I love the games). Alas, sports movies are a mixed bag in terms of quality. One area in which baseball movies often find success is in tapping into the historic and/or mythic elements of the game itself. 42 does exactly that, delving into Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
The title 42 of course refers to Robinson’s uniform number–the only number retired across all of Major League Baseball. Although his major league accomplishments were innumerable, the film focuses on the period from the signing of Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) by Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) in 1945 through his rookie season of 1947. Needless to say, the entrance of an African-American into white baseball encountered great resistance; Rickey specifically sought out a player with not only the talent but the personality to resist persecution by not fighting back. Robinson is supported in these tribulations by his steadfast wife Rachel (Nicole Beharle). Perhaps surprising to those not familiar with the details, the seemingly Hollywood nature of much of the story–Rickey’s motivations, Robinson’s character and consequent strength in action–is actually deeply rooted in fact, not as fictionalized for the movie as one might suspect.
42 is a very good film, but despite the movie’s legendary protagonist, it fails to capture the mythic nature of the sport in the manner of a film such as The Natural–and thus the picture falls short of greatness. The true-life Hollywood-like story elements cannot be blamed; indeed, they are inherent in baseball and the greatest of baseball movies have them, too. Instead, this may have much to do with the Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures-produced 42 feeling very much like the studio film it is in the way that all modern movies actually produced by the studios and not just distributed by them have a very specific “studio” feel. It is a tough feel to describe, almost sanitized even when the content is not, or too polished and refined a style when the story does not call for it.
The performances in 42 are superb. Boseman–primarily a TV actor to this point–is a true find, capturing Robinson’s strength, exhibiting such imperviousness on the surface while such pain and frustration boil underneath. And this may be Harrison Ford’s best work in years, embodying Branch Rickey to the point that Rickey’s voice is exactly how I have always imagined it. Kudos must also be handed out to Beharle as Rachael, John C. McGinley as legendary Dodger play-by-play man Red Barber, and the cast as a whole.
The production design is gorgeous, especially the recreation of long-since demolished ballparks such as Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds. For younger but history-minded baseball fans who never had the opportunity to experience those classic yards even on TV, these are a particular joy. The cinematography I found sufficient, but sadly not wowing–indeed the attempt to provide hitherto unseen perspective on the baseball games themselves was actually slightly disconcerting to me, connecting neither to my associations of classic baseball movie photography nor, more importantly, to those of the countless games I have watched on television. It is “too close to the action” compared to that of broadcast games; someone not so familiar with the televised sport may not have such preconceptions.
The 2.35 picture was shot on Red Epic and has the crispness one would expect from a digital source–too crisp, if you ask me. The period feel otherwise so aptly captured with the color palette would have been better served by some grain, whether from shooting on 35mm or added as a digital filter. As a transfer, the Blu-ray does look spectacular, with defined blacks and no artifacts. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sounds fantastic, electrifying the baseball scenes; the rest of the film being straight dialogue, the full range of such sound does not come into play.
The special features–of which only three are included, all featurettes–are an odd bunch, inasmuch as the descriptions have little bearing on their contents. “Stepping into History” is billed as a behind-the-scenes mini-doc, but focuses almost entirely on how the main actors embodied their roles and not on the production of the movie. “Full Contact Baseball” is ostensibly about the physical nature of baseball of the 1940s (and the film representing such), but in actuality is more of a true behind-the-scenes look than “Stepping into History,” encompassing all aspects of bringing 1940s baseball to the screen, from the actors’ training to the photography of the game to the visual effects necessary to generate the no longer extant baseball parks. Finally, “The Legacy of the Number of 42” examines the socio impact of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, inclusive of discussions with several of Robinson’s baseball contemporaries.
Incorrect billing aside, all three featurettes are fairly well executed, with “The Legacy of the Number of 42” the standout due to the bulk of old-time ballplayer interviews included therein.
In summation, 42 may not be the best baseball movie ever, but it is a good film, a highly enjoyable watch about the amazing Jackie Robinson, whose critical role in setting the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1960s can not be overstated. 42 also serves as a reminder of the true socio importance of sports in the face of scandals and business that often mar the games.