The story of Jackie Robinson is a story so profound that no two-hour film could do it justice, but that is what Brian Helgeland and crew attempted to do. Robinson impacted the game in ways that no film representation could accurately pull off, but “42” did a damn good job trying.
When the film comes out of a brief opening narrative, you hear the raspy voice of Branch Rickey, played superbly by Harrsion Ford, say, “Gentleman, I have a plan.” His plan: to integrate the Negros into the sport of baseball. Why? Well, it’s simple to Rickey. Money does not have any prejudice. It is always green and Robinson will attract more fans, which, in turn, equals more money. But do not be fooled, Rickey is not only in it for the money, he also wants to win and, as we find out later, he truly does want to help the advancement of black players into the sport of baseball, the sport Rickey loves.
The dynamic between Rickey and the young Jackie Robinson, played by Chadwick Boseman, throughout the film is fantastic and a joy to watch. No more so is that true than in the scene when Rickey is signing Jackie to a minor league contract and is intentionally getting him riled up, to the point that gets Robinson irritated. He says to Rickey, confused, “You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” Rickey replies back, “No. I want a player who’s got the guts not to fight back.” And it is here, that we see the true nature of Jackie Robinson, as he says with style and bravado, “You give me a uniform, you give me a number on my back, I’ll give you the guts.” And so begins Jackie’s path to becoming an American icon.
Robinson signs with a minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, and he is invited to spring training in 1946 with the Dodgers. Upon his arrival, he is introduced to a small part of what it will be like to play in a white league. His own teammates do not like him. Even Clay Hopper, the manager of the Royals, makes a racist comment in front of Rickey, who quickly squashes the matter as he threatens his job. Through those moments, you see the true nature of Rickey, who continually backs Robinson throughout the film. Even Robinson questions his steadfast commitment at times.
It is worth mentioning Jackie’s private life for a moment. He proposed to his wife Rachel over the phone and soon after that they had a child. Rachel is by Jackie’s side through thick and thin, like any good wife, and helps and supports him get through all the chaos playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers has provided; always watching with a keen eye from the stands, hoping, praying, for Jackie to succeed in the white man’s game. And the child, well, Robinson made a vow to never leave his son like his father left him. “God built me to last,” he says.
Robinson eventually makes his way to the big leagues and his impact on the game is sufficient, to say the least. He plays first base for the Dodgers, since second base, his primary position, the position he was famed for playing, is occupied by Eddie Stanky. Before the season even started, Robinson’s presence causes problems, as some players want to boycott playing with him. This is dealt with by soon-to-be-suspended manager Leo Durocher, who took orders from Rickey to act upon the players’ disobedience.
At times, Robinson struggles mentally with the pressure he is under. The most apparent time being when he is heckled by Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. Robinson is clearly upset while batting, as Chapman attacks him from all angles. It gets so bad that Stanky actually confronts Chapman, since Jackie has to restrain himself on the field. But off the field, Jackie is ready to explode. After popping out, Robinson heads into the dugout after a long stare with Chapman and smashes his bat in the hallway. Out of the dark emerges Rickey, ready to console Robinson, who is just as troubled with the experience as Jackie is.
“He has to live with himself,” Rickey says to Jackie. “I have to live with myself too,” is Jackie’s stern response back. Rickey knows this is hard, as he has helped Robinson throughout every encounter, looking out for him, almost like a son.
Slowly and surely, things start coming together for Robinson. He is asked to shower with his teammates, he takes a picture with the aforementioned Chapman, and he hits the Dodgers to the pennant, the goal of any baseball franchise.
It is Harrison Ford’s great supporting role as Branch Rickey that elevates “42.” He stands by Jackie, motivates him, protects him. Rickey eventually does tell Robinson the real reason he is doing all of these things for him and when he does, you realize that sometimes baseball, and sports, takes a backseat to the issues that are bigger than the game. Sure, Rickey does it to help baseball, but he also does it to help himself, to help America change and that is the redeeming factor of this film, of this legendary story.
By all accounts, “42” deals with the harsh nature of Robinson’s rise as well as any PG-13 movie can. It certainly tames the racial slurs that Robinson deals with, but it does not downplay their significance. Rickey takes out folders full of letters that “are not from the Jackie Robinson fan group” and Robinson is called a “nigger” countless times throughout the movie. This harsh reality only serves as a small reminder about how bad he actually had it.
But this film is more about the perseverance than the struggle. Jackie Robinson prevails to become one of the most beloved athletes this country has ever seen and this film understands that notion. Time and again, Robinson encounters a problem and time and again he rises above it. A true example of American fortitude.
And here we stand, in 2013, still admiring the actions of a ballplayer who has not played a game in over fifty years. “He was built to last,” Branch Rickey says. He sure was.