These days, there are many less flattering things you could say about a movie than that it's enjoyable in a square, uncomplicated, stirringly old-fashioned way. 42, a sports drama about how Jackie Robinson broke the color line in professional baseball, is in some ways a film that could have been made 30 years ago, or 50 years ago. (In fact, it was made 63 years ago: 1950's The Jackie Robinson Story starred the legendary second baseman himself.) The film depicts Robinson, played by the dazzling, little-known actor Chadwick Boseman, as a fearless, noble athlete-crusader which, of course, is just what he was, though 42 scarcely spends three minutes trying to find any flaws in him (surely he must have had one), or even giving him a sprinkle of idiosyncrasy. Is the writer-director, Brian Helgeland (who wrote L.A. Confidential and directed A Knight's Tale), worried that we wouldn't admire Robinson enough? Helgeland works in what I think of as a conservative or maybe it's just really, really basic neoclassical Hollywood style, spelling everything out, letting the story unfold in a plainspoken and deliberate fashion, with a big, wide, open pictorial camera eye. It's like the latter-day Clint Eastwood style, applied to material that's as traditional as can be.
Yet in one vital way, the movie feels very contemporary. When Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, spearheading the civil rights era before it had a name, he was subjected, on and off the field, to a degree of racial antagonism that could almost be called terrorism. For all its wholesomely uplifting, message-movie design, 42 makes that struggle look every bit as brutal and scary as it was. Robinson's fellow Dodgers, many of them Southern boys, welcome him to the team by signing a petition to have him kicked off. He's booed from the stands, pitchers take open delight in beaning him, and in one scene, when he's up at bat, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies (Alan Tudyk) heckles him from the sidelines by calling him the N-word for five unrelenting minutes. The way that scene goes on and on is scathingly powerful, as Jackie can barely keep himself from coming apart. Boseman, a graceful and handsome actor with a deep inner fire, gives Robinson a stare that's penetrating and guarded at the same time. A lot of the film's drama is reading that face the intelligence and masked outrage. Jackie isn't allowed to fight back against any of the viciousness (if he did, it would look to mainstream America like he was the troublemaker), yet swallowing it eats up his spirit. How does he cope?
By playing the hell out of the game. Even if he hadn't been baseball's trailblazing crossover star, Robinson had a talent on the field that was explosive. He was a wizard at stealing bases, and the movie glories in his quickness and bravado how he steps off first base and eases down the path, hopping back and forth like a jackrabbit on a hot stove, holding his arms low, letting his fingers wiggle like nervous antennae. 42 portrays this athletic showmanship with an element of racial psychodrama. Robinson isn't just teasing the pitchers (the more they look at him, the less they can tell what he's going to do next). He's mocking them, working off his anger. He triumphs, and holds on to his sanity, by beating racist players at their own game.
The movie covers just three years of Robinson's life, beginning in 1945, when he's a World War II veteran playing in the Negro Leagues and gets recruited by the forward-thinking Dodgers general manager, Branch Rickey, to join his minor-league club, the Montreal Royals. As Rickey, a stogie-chomping grump with a heart of gold, Harrison Ford seems to have reinvented himself as an actor. He gives an ingeniously stylized cartoon performance, his eyes atwinkle, his mouth a rubbery grin, his voice all wily Southern music, though with that growl of Fordian anger just beneath it. Calling Robinson into his office, he tells him that he needs a player who doesn't so much have the guts to fight back as the guts not to fight back. 42 is a rousing tribute to how impossible, and therefore heroic, a stance that was. B+