Biographies of great athletes can be roughly sorted into three categories. There are hero-worshiping fables suitable for fourth-grade classrooms, scandalous feet-of-clay exposés and, rarest of all, narratives that link sports with significant, nonathletic historical events and social issues. In America those events and issues almost always have to do with race, which makes the life of Jackie Robinson especially ripe for sweeping, comprehensive treatment.
But while “42,”Brian Helgeland’s new film about Robinson, gestures toward the complicated and painful history in which its subject was embroiled, it belongs, like most sports biopics, in the first category. It is blunt, simple and sentimental, using time-tested methods to teach a clear and rousing lesson.
In other hands — Spike Lee’s, let’s say, or even Clint Eastwood’s — “42” might have taken a tougher, more contentious look at the breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier. But Mr. Helgeland, whose previous directing credits include “Payback” and “A Knight’s Tale” (and who wrote “Blood Work” and “Mystic River,” speaking of Clint Eastwood), has honorably sacrificed the chance to make a great movie in the interest of making one that is accessible and inspiring. Though not accurate in every particular, the movie mostly succeeds in respecting the facts of history and the personality of its hero, and in reminding audiences why he mattered.
After a clumsy and didactic beginning — in which every scene ends with Mark Isham’s score screaming “This Is Important!” in Dolby — the movie settles into a solid, square rhythm. By then we have met Robinson, played with sly charm and a hint of stubborn prickliness by Chadwick Boseman.
A shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues, a four-sport athlete at U.C.L.A. and a commissioned Army officer during World War II, Robinson has been selected by Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to become the first African-American major leaguer of the modern era. After some time with the Dodgers’ minor-league affiliate in Montreal, Robinson, now married and with a baby (his wife, Rachel, is played by Nicole Beharie), starts at first base, wearing No. 42, for the Dodgers on opening day in 1947.
The story of what happened before and after that game has been told well before — in Arnold Rampersad’s biography and in parts of Ken Burns’s “Baseball,” for instance — but “42” does a good job of dramatizing the salient emotions of the moment and the racism that surrounded Robinson and every other black American of his time. To his credit Mr. Helgeland avoids the trap that so many depictions of the Jim Crow era fall into, which is to imply that racial prejudice was an individual or regional pathology rather than a national social norm.
So while there are a handful of snarling Southern bigots — most notably Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies — their actions are treated not as exceptions to the rule but as especially ugly instances of it. Robinson is threatened and harassed by vigilantes and police officers in Florida during his first spring training, but white fans in the North, Brooklyn included, are hardly shy about showering him with boos and slurs when he takes the field.
The other players — including Robinson’s own teammates — are not much better. He is spiked by base runners and beaned by pitchers. A petition circulates in the Dodgers’ clubhouse demanding his removal from the team, and rival owners call Rickey demanding the same thing.
As I said: a well-known story. But it is useful for young viewers to have a look at the world their grandparents were born into, a world that is still frequently given, in movies and on television, a glow of nostalgic innocence.
Of course there was decency and courage as well, here embodied by Rickey, the Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) — one of the only Brooklyn players to shake Robinson’s hand when he first walks into the locker room — and the shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), whose public embrace of Robinson before a game in Cincinnati is the emotional high point of the movie. But “42” does not give these men disproportionate credit for passing a fairly easy test of character that most of the country was proud to fail, and it does not pretend that Robinson’s story is really theirs.
His triumph is edged with bitterness and shadowed by profound loneliness. In spite of Rachel’s steadfast support and the enthusiasm of black fans, Robinson is surrounded by hostility and by people who, even if they are on his side, cannot begin to understand his experience. When Rickey describes his new player as “superhuman,” he is bestowing a curse in the form of praise, and identifying a paradox central to postwar racial politics. To be accepted as human, as equal to whites, the black pioneers of the era had to rise above all kinds of ordinary human temptations — to fight back, to show anger or fear — and become flawless exemplars of their race.
“42” not only identifies this burden but also surrenders to it. Robinson, the film’s undisputed hero, is in some ways its least interesting character. Rickey is a cigar-chomping, Scripture-spouting old coot; Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni), the Dodgers’ manager, is a cynical womanizer who speaks in cracked aphorisms, while the radio broadcaster Red Barber (a wonderful John C. McGinley) extemporizes jewels of English prose.
In contrast, the main African-American figures in the story — Jackie, Rachel and the journalist Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) — seem a little stiff, unable to be themselves in their own story. Which may just be to say that the cultural transformation in which Jackie Robinson played a significant early role is still incomplete.
“42” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Some rough language, including racial epithets.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Written and directed by Brian Helgeland; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Kevin Stitt and Peter McNulty; music by Mark Isham; production design by Richard Hoover; costumes by Caroline Harris; produced by Thomas Tull; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes.
WITH: Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson), Harrison Ford (Branch Rickey), Nicole Beharie (Rachel Robinson), Christopher Meloni (Leo Durocher), Ryan Merriman (Dixie Walker), Lucas Black (Pee Wee Reese), Andre Holland (Wendell Smith), Alan Tudyk (Ben Chapman), Hamish Linklater (Ralph Branca), T. R. Knight (Harold Parrott) and John C. McGinley (Red Barber).