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42' hits a home run

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Film tells the story of Jackie Robinson

I am a sucker for a good sports movie. It doesn't even really matter which sport the drama inherent to athletic competition in general often makes for compelling cinema. And that competitive tension can be mined for humor as well as drama. You don't even need to be a sports fan (though it undoubtedly helps). The very best sports movies are the ones that use what happens on the field as a way to speak to the larger issues of what happens off it. 

'42' is a very, very good movie. It's about baseball, to be sure, but it's also about a moment in time where society found itself forced to change for the better.

It's the story of Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman, 'The Kill Hole'), the first African-American man to play baseball in the major leagues during the modern era. Right after WWII, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford, 'Cowboys & Aliens') takes it upon himself to ignore MLB's unwritten 'gentleman's agreement' the collusion between teams to prevent African-American ballplayers from playing in the majors.

Robinson is a college graduate and a decorated veteran along with being a hell of a ballplayer. Circumstances have shown him to be the ideal candidate for this grand experiment; he has shown stoic strength in the face of racial adversity. So Rickey invites him to Florida for spring training. Robinson is there with his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie, 'The Last Fall'); he's also in the constant presence of Wendell Smith (Andre Holland, TV's '1600 Penn'), an African-American sportswriter and Robinson's self-professed Boswell.

Robinson is subjected to all manner of vitriolic abuse as he tries to make his way playing the game that he loves and not just from the outside. There's a faction on his own team that is adamantly against his presence. However, as Robinson puts his skills on display, many of them come to realize that the measure of a man cannot be taken by the color of his skin. The Dodgers would go on to win the National League pennant in 1947.

'42' is an interesting take on the story of Jackie Robinson; it devotes equal time to Branch Rickey and the obstacles he himself faced in bringing a black man to the major leagues. While I might have preferred a bit more Robinson, there's no denying that the focus on Rickey allowed a much broader look into the circumstances of the situation.

Boseman is excellent as Robinson. He's a strong center to the film, conveying a fire burning beneath a stoic veneer. Plus, he clearly did his homework as a ballplayer he even got Robinson's batting stance right. And Ford brings a jowly bluster to his portrayal of Rickey that is enthralling; it's nice to know that the guy has still got it if he actually cares about what he's doing. The interplay between the two of them is unfailingly honest and heartfelt some of the best scenes in the film.

The casting overall is phenomenal. Beharie and Holland are great, but there are so many nuanced performances throughout. Lucas Black ('Promised Land') and Hamish Linklater ('Battleship') are compelling as Robinson's teammates Pee Wee Reese and Ralph Branca respectively. Christopher Meloni (TV's 'Law & Order: SVU') has some strong scenes as Dodgers manager Leo Durocher. John C. McGinley ('Alex Cross') is all kinds of old-timey awesome as radio announcer Red Barber. And Toby Huss ('Cowboys & Aliens') is excellent as coach/scout (and Maine native) Clyde Sukeforth.

'42' could easily have become all about the message, the mission and the man. That would have been okay, but happily, the filmmakers also did their due diligence with regards to the action on the field. The baseball scenes capture the feeling of the era; there's none of the clunkiness that you sometimes get when actors try to be athletes. 

Is '42' perfect? No. It might have been nice to see a crack or two in the Robinson faade; he wasn't perfect, although you'd be hard-pressed to tell from this movie. But that's OK; the overwhelming historic positivity of his accomplishments more or less excuses the fine gloss that coats everything.

No sport loves its history quite like baseball, and Jackie Robinson is one of the most prominent parts of that history. '42' is a powerfully-rendered snapshot of a moment in time a moment that would eventually become not just one of the most important in sports history, but in American history as well.

5 out of 5

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