“With all due respect, sir, have you lost your mind?”
In the movie “42,” that's the reaction of Brooklyn Dodgers publicist Harold Parrott (T.R. Knight, “Grey's Anatomy”) when the team's general manager, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), tells him he's going to hire the first African-American player in Major League Baseball.
Picking Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) for the job, Rickey's reasoning is a classic: “Robinson's a Methodist. I'm a Methodist. God's a Methodist. We can't go wrong.”
Nor can this movie go seriously wrong with the compelling, inherently dramatic story of how Robinson combined great athleticism with great self-control to face down the outcry and shift the course of not only baseball but American history. His uniform number, 42, has been permanently retired from all pro baseball clubs — an honor nobody else can claim.
Director-screenwriter Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential,” “Mystic River”) extends a strong track record with period material. He does a stellar job of condensing key moments of two baseball seasons, 1946 and 1947, into a sometimes suspenseful and often moving piece of storytelling — and of capturing the mixed mood of the country from a time long gone.
The beanballs, the deliberate spiking to injure Robinson, the protests from some of his own teammates, the catcalls and slurs from the crowd, the anonymous death threats — they're all folded into the story without overdramatization. This story needs no embellishment.
In balance, Helgeland also includes the exceptional support Robinson got from Rickey, from teammates like Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and Eddie Stanky (Jesse Luken), as well as from ordinary fans both black and white.
Nicole Beharie is a standout in an underwritten role as Robinson's wife, Rachel, who proves to be his greatest source of strength.
Alan Tudyk gets the thankless job of being the most blatant villain of the picture, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who shouts horrifically racist dialogue from the dugout as Robinson comes to bat. Yes, this really happened. And as a postcript spells out, Chapman paid a price for it. (Stick around for those fact-filled postscripts.)
Also outstanding: Christopher Meloni as womanizing Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, who has to face down his own players when some circulate a petition refusing to share the field with Robinson. Great scene. And, according to baseball historians, also accurate.
Mark Isham's score lays on the noble horns a little thick a time or two, but I have to admit they also helped raise a lump in my throat here and there.
Ford and Boseman (a newcomer to me) are solid in the lead roles. Maybe not exceptional, but solid. I particularly liked a key scene in which Robinson loses it, out of public view, and Rickey pulls him back from the brink. In other scenes, Ford uses that tongue-in-cheek humor he's famous for to full advantage.
But if you're looking for backstory and other moments that make you think you understand these characters from the inside out, you may not find many. “42” is very much event-driven, though the story is so much about character. It sticks to the events of those two years. It's better at defining Robinson's base-stealing skills than what made him tick.
Maybe no movie can do it all justice. But “42” comes close in replaying a chapter of American history that at once encapsulates great national shame and great national pride.
With the exception of a bit of foul language, this is a movie worth taking tweener and teen kids to and talking about afterward. For them, the world made so real in “42” will seem like something out of the movies.
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