The Reel: ’42’ hits a home run with casting and design


Ben Conniff

As the great No. 42 himself once said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Any self-respecting baseball fan knows that the life of Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman Jackie Robinson is one with tremendous impact; perhaps the most of any American athlete in history.

The guy didn’t just live up to his own words. He practically dwarfed them, and unless you consider yourself a fan of the game, you may not be entirely familiar with Jackie’s story.

Warner Brothers is now offering audiences the chance to learn all about Robinson’s rise to prominence as the first African American player in, what was then, all-white Major League Baseball.

After seeing “42”, I can confidently say, whether you consider yourself a fan of the game or not, everyone needs to see this movie. The story of No. 42 is an inspiring one that still resonates 70 years after the fact, even if the film itself suffers from a few sports drama clichés.

Director Brian Helgeland (“A Knight’s Tale”) manages to put a nice focus on the production design, which makes the audience feel like they’ve stepped out of a time capsule.

Baseball fans salivating for a chance to see what it was like to witness a game in classic ballparks like Ebbets Field, Crosley Field, Forbes Field, and the Polo Grounds won’t be disappointed.

Aside from the stellar production value, Harrison Ford gives the first great supporting performance of the year as Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, perfectly evoking the gruff, cigar-chewing spirit of a character who seemed to wake up one morning and decide to change baseball forever.

What’s more is newcomer Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of Jackie Robinson. Boseman’s performance succeeds not just because he’s essentially Robinson’s doppelganger, but because his anonymity eliminates any predisposed, star-powered expectations about Robinson’s portrayal.

If Jamie Foxx had played Robinson, audiences would’ve just said, “Oh, God, why?” and likely not given the film a chance. 

“42” is clearly Boseman’s movie as he comes out of nowhere to hold his own against the heavyweight chops of Harrison Ford. Like Robinson himself, Boseman is up for the challenge and exceeds expectations. He’s deeply affecting and easy to root for.

The chemistry between Boseman and Nicole Beharie, who plays Robinson’s wife, Rachel, is also impeccable, making the scenes involving Jackie’s life off the field just as enthralling as the in-game moments.

What I didn’t care much for was a failure to show Robinson’s true come-up.

I guess “42” is more about his relationship with Rickey and rise with the Dodgers, but I would’ve liked to have seen a young Jackie Robinson showing his potential as a child playing stickball in the streets before seeing him thrown into the big-league fold with fully developed skills.

We could’ve really gotten to know the kind of man Robinson is and why he is who he is, but this part of his life is never adequately explored.

Missing backstories aside, “42” soars out of the park thanks to impeccable production design and acting performances that deserve to be remembered this Oscar season.

It’s an important story about an important man that will leave you moved.