Jackie Robinson’s career with the [Brooklyn] Dodgers is without a doubt one of the all-time great sport stories. It’s hard to imagine a world where black ballplayers were confined to playing in the so-called Negro Leagues but sure enough, before Robinson, that’s how it was.
Before the civil rights movement picked up steam in the sixties, Robinson was already breaking down colour barriers. It’s surprising that it’s taken this long for Hollywood to step up to the plate and give Robinson the big Hollywood biopic he deserves (although it’s worth remembering that Robinson actually played himself in the low-budget 1950 movie, The Jackie Robinson Story).
The movie, 42, recaptures not just Robinson’s achievement but the brutal obstacles he faced, both physical and psychological, not to mention verbal to a disgusting degree.
In telling Robinson’s story, director Brian Helgeland doesn’t dwell on the endless barrage of racist bile that Robinson (and his wife) endured, but he doesn’t shy from it either. As a result, Robinson’s achievement takes on more meaning and more power.
This is your typical big Hollywood biopic, which is obviously far more interested in the legend and mystique of Jackie Robinson than the man himself. This is the kind of sports movie that’s packed to the brim with slow-motion shots of Robinson waving to the crowd, children watching him adoringly from the stands, and low-angle shots of Robinson looking thoughtful and heroic.
Helgeland also wisely divides his focus between Robinson (played with charismatic restraint by Chadwick Boseman), Rachel Robinson (Nicole Beharie) and Branch Rickey, played by Harrison Ford, who gets more screen time than he actually should.
Nothing against the man, who truly was a hero for integrating baseball, but the fact is Rickey’s story is much less interesting than Robinson’s. Likely, the focus on Rickey is due to the fact that Harrison Ford is playing him, which is also a problem. I love Ford (as I’m sure we all do) but in this case his own legendary stature works against him.
Ford is one of those guys like Clint Eastwood or John Wayne, in that he’s such an iconic presence that it’s tough to accept him as Rickey, with his corny grin, ultra-fake eyebrows, and affected voice.