Jackie Robinson story is face-paced, entertaining

Published: Thursday, April 11, 2013 5:30 a.m.CDT

Writer-director Brian Helgeland approaches every scene of “42,” the story of baseball barrier breaker Jackie Robinson, as if it were a history lesson.

Nothing is especially wrong with this. Robinson, who in 1947 became the first black man to step onto a Major League ball field as a player, is a key figure of the 20th century. In simple terms, his bat struck the first major blow for Civil Rights. “42” can’t help being a history lesson.

Helgeland, who won the Oscar for his “L.A. Confidential” script, can point to recent precedence. Steven Spielberg also framed every scene of “Lincoln” as a history lesson. The difference comes in the presentation. With “Lincoln,” Spielberg presented history like a college professor. With “42,” Helgeland presents history like a middle-school teacher.

Again, nothing is especially wrong with this. Children should see this movie. They should learn why Robinson deserves to be remembered and revered. They should learn the horror of the institutional racism that once dictated life in much of the country and of the ingrained racism that influenced life in the rest of it.

“42” is no dry and boring recitation of history. It features excitement and humor. Children will be entertained by it, especially those who love baseball. But while their children learn, adults may get antsy with “42,” waiting for a few lessons to be pitched at their level. Such lessons come, but it takes a while.

With “Lincoln,” Spielberg at least assumed his audience knew of the Civil War. Helgeland assumes his audience knows nothing about Robinson’s era. “42” opens with a quick vignette narrated by African-American baseball writer Wendell Smith (played by Andre Holland), who quickly explains the post-War years, Jim Crow laws, the Negro Leagues and the solid-white state of Major League baseball (which made it no different from nearly all American institutions at the time).

With that scene set, Helgeland cuts directly to the offices of a certain ballclub as general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) bluntly tells his subordinates, “I’m going to bring a Negro ballplayer to the Brooklyn Dodgers.”

Of all the players in the Negro Leagues, Rickey settles upon Robinson (Chadwick Boseman). Amusingly, even though Rickey is painted as a hero of integration, he is drawn to Robinson through a different form of prejudice. “He’s Methodist,” Rickey says. “I’m Methodist. God’s Methodist.”

Statistics show Rickey that Robinson is a superb athlete on the field. But he needs to know that Robinson has the Herculean inner strength to bear, and bear with outward serenity, the task before him. Robinson must endure what no person should endure, the racial hatred of a nation focused directly at him. And if he shows anger, he will be tagged as the aggressor.

As Rickey famously tells Robison, “I want a player who has the guts not to fight back.”

“42” concentrates on the years ’46 and ’47, Robinson’s season with Brooklyn’s farm team in Montreal and his rookie season with the Dodgers (in the second hour, it almost seems the film will dramatize every game of the Dodgers’ 47 season).

In its broad strokes, “42” covers material familiar to even someone like me, who doesn’t know much about baseball’s past except the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. While crowds howl the n-word at Robinson from the bleachers, he finds enemies in his own lockerroom. During spring training a handful of Dodgers circulate a petition to keep him out of the club.

Some hang on to their hatred, but overall resistance thaws as players recognize the superior skills he brings to their club and recoil from the abuse other teams hurl at him, from epithets to beanballs. Shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) drapes his arm around Robinson during a game in Cincinnati, sending a message to the fans from his native Kentucky who crossed the river to watch him play.

Helgeland is sending a message, too. He transfers the moral “we’re all on the same team” from baseball to life too glibly, a reminder that “42” is aimed primarily at a younger audience.

It’s in the details and the performances that “42” rises above a script that tends to be too calculated and academic and a tone too indebted to “The Natural.” Boseman is phenomenal, with a soulful performance matched by credible big league baseball skills. He makes a more convincing screen Jackie Robinson than the genuine article, who played himself in the quickly made “Jackie Robinson Story” of 1950.

“42” also showcases a Ford radically different from one we have seen before. With few exceptions, Ford’s roles have come in three types: rascally action heroes (Han Solo, Indiana Jones), stolid action heroes (“Air Force One”) or gruff action heroes (“Cowboys and Aliens”). Here he takes on a genuine character role, with makeup and a voice more gravelly than usual. This is such a welcome departure for Ford that he can be forgiven for hamming it up here and there.

Other baseball legends figure into figure into Robinson’s story, with Christopher Meloni and John C. McGinley as Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher and broadcaster Red Barber, respectively. Nicole Beharie plays Robinson’s bride, Rachel, who suffers alongside him and props him up when he’s ready to quit.

Helgeland’s slyest piece of casting is Alan Tudyk as Philadelphia’s manager Ben Chapman. Tudyk ranks among the most amiable of supporting actors (anyone who knows him from TV’s “Firefly” would think so), which makes it that much more shocking when he stands outside the Philadelphia dugout like a one-man Klan, pelting Robinson with every vile slur ever conceived to describe a black man.

Tudyk’s appearance reminds us that even people we like and admire can surprise us with a hidden well of bigotry. This is a disturbing and subtle lesson in a movie filled with reassuring and obvious ones. “42” is an admirable film that tells an important story well, but it wears its nobility too conspicuously.

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