42 ★★

The statement above might say that this is a first time viewing, but I've seen this movie before. I've seen it in Remember the Titans. I've seen it in Glory Road. I've seen it in The Express. All stories worth telling, but not in such an ordinary manner.

42 is old fashioned, uncynical, inoffensive filmmaking. A vanilla visual aesthetic, predictable plot beats and an uplifting narrative...the ingredients are all there for an inspirational crowd-pleaser. It's hard for me to dislike the film because it's intentions are so noble, but there's very little to get excited about, either.

The subject of Jackie Robinson, the Negro Leagues and the breaking of the color barrier are things I've read about extensively since I was very young and there's more than enough interesting material for a historical film to be made. But Brian Helgeland's film isn't interesting- at least not to me. From its opening voice over played with a montage of old baseball clips, 42 feels like a history lesson. Facts are told, but with considerable softness around the edges. Brief asides are made to directly pander to the baseball-illerate audience. The film takes liberties with events just to facilitate whatever optimistic or downbeat tone it happens to be on at the moment. The racial epithets are present, but they're safely spaced out for the most part. Certain character arcs are as simplistic as "I was racist, but not anymore." Nearly every scene posits a question at some point with the sole purpose of setting up some inspirational trailer-friendly answer ("You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?"..."No, I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back!"). Cliched lines like "I don't care if he's yellow, brown or has zebra stripes, he's your teammate" are everywhere.

...All those problems and I still don't hate it. Boseman is great despite the thin, "wearied hero" characterization. Harrison Ford is mostly gravelly-voiced ham, but I'll be damned if it isn't the most lively performance I've seen from him in a long time. Outside the above-average acting (which extends beyond Boseman and Ford), Helgeland manages a handful of effective moments. A sympathetic scene on the field between Robinson and Pee Wee Reese is touching, if a little spontaneous and out of place. A brief side bar concerning a racist father and his impressionable young son is a relatively subtle and unexpected inclusion that most films of this kind wouldn't have. The editing of parallel events at the finale is extremely corny, but the scene hits its emotional target regardless.

It's somewhat saddening to read that at one point, more than a decade ago, this project was in Spike Lee's hands. For all the problems I have with him as a director, I've got to say that that movie would have been 100 times more powerful. In other hands, though, 42 is a hero story with no emotional punch and no raw-facts bite. As a learning tool for kids and young baseball fans, it's perfectly fine, but as a piece of cinema it's unremarkable.