For director Brian Helgeland, taking on the task of writing and directing a movie about baseball hero Jackie Robinson was no easy chore.
Helgeland not only had to figure out how to tell the hero’s life story in a single film, but had to prove to Robinson’s widow, Rachel, who runs the Jackie Robinson Foundation that he was the right man for the job.
“She had the rights and wasn’t going to just sell them to anyone, so I had to prove to her that the way I wanted to tell the story was the right way,” he shares.
A movie which focuses on the pivotal years of Robinson’s life from 1945 through 1947, it’s a great story which aptly captures the level of opposition and overt bigotry Robinson faced as the first African American to play for a major league team.
With a great ensemble of actors, Chadwick Boseman (“The Express”) plays the baseball legend, Harrison Ford (“Witness”) is Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey, and Nicole Beharie is Robinson’s wife Rachel. Rounding out the main cast is Christopher Meloni, Andre Holland, Lucas Black and Ryan Merriman.
“I thought I knew a lot about Jackie Robinson, but when I began researching the story, I realized I knew very little about that time and what he actually went through,” adds Helgeland.
At the start of the movie, we meet Branch Rickey, who despite vehement opposition from the league, the public and his own players, is determined to sign a black player to his team. He sets his sights on an accomplished Negro League player called Jackie Robinson and signs him on to the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking Major League Baseball’s infamous color line. We then follow Robinson and Rickey’s journey as they face blatant racism in the firing line of the public, the press and other players before ultimately wining over fans and teammates.
While Harrison Ford gives a great performance as Rickey, the real unsung hero of the movie is Chadwick Boseman who bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Robinson and delivers one of his finest screen performances.
“I didn’t want a well-known actor to play Jackie,” chimes Helgeland. “It’s always strange when someone who is well known plays another character who is famous. It makes it hard to suspend your disbelief. Chad came in and picked the most difficult scene that I was asking people to read and nailed it. You can see him reacting even when he’s being quiet. You know how things are hitting him just looking at his face.”
“42” has its heart in the right place as it wants us to leave the theater feeling not angry or motivated, but inspired and even if you’re not a fan of the game, the movie is heartfelt and moving for Ford and company make it watchable.
This movie does play it safe. It tries its best not to point fingers and avoids the stereotypical racists that are so easily shown in other movies but more so, it doesn’t show us what Jackie Robinson was really like and there are unexplored surfaces when it comes to the hero’s complex life and times. It could have given us more of Robinson’s formative years and offered glimpses into his childhood, but overall it’s a well-made historical drama.
An inspirational movie about the human spirit, “42” will be remembered in a long line of great baseball movies.