Straightforward and purposeful as a home run trot, Brian Helgeland's 42 is one of the all-time great sports movies — primarily because it's one of the all-time great sports stories.
The saga of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier is burned into American history like a player's autograph on a wooden bat. It's superfluous for Helgeland's opening credits to remind viewers 42 is based on a true story. But that's the closest thing to a mistake he makes in presenting Robinson's tale, in a movie destined for perennial viewings, whenever hope and baseball make a keystone combination.
Robinson's journey from Negro League marginalization to the forefront of national racial awareness has been dramatized once before, with the man playing himself in 1950's The Jackie Robinson Story. That movie was a mere three years after the fact, in a cultural era when the ugliness Robinson faced with such dignity couldn't be addressed head-on.
Freed from that timidity, Helgeland doesn't need to gussy up his movie with flashbacks, sepia tones and other flourishes that period sports movies typically involve. He allows bigoted slurs to speak ignorantly for themselves, with a frankness making viewers wince as they should. This decision also makes applauding easier, when racists spouting such bile are put in their places by wisdom and well-timed base hits. 42 earns its cheers and tears honestly, without propped-up drama that would cheapen the real thing.
Robinson is played by relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman, primarily a television actor but automatically a movie star. Boseman resists the temptation to play this role too noble, saintly or martyred as history might prefer, preferring only to portray a decent man in a damnable situation. He exudes pride in the face of prejudice, and heartbreaking humanity when bleacher bum catcalls become too much to bear.
42 is also a tender love story between Robinson and his extraordinarily supportive wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie), with the actors' chemistry rivaling the baseball material. There is also a less tender but equally loving relationship Helgeland explores, between Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who took a chance and changed not only a game but a nation.
Harrison Ford plays Rickey, and I'll predict right now that this performance earns a best supporting actor Oscar nomination next year. It is everything the academy will love: a true-life character with a cause, who's played by a showboating actor overdue for Oscar posterity after an enormously successful career. Ford knows it, too, chomping each line of dialogue with raspy relish, spitting them out of a mouth perpetually crooked to fit a cigar. The movie is a home run, and Ford is a grand ham.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow him on Twitter at @StevePersall.