Earnest, righteous, historically accurate and often entertaining, writer-director Brian Helgeland’s “42” is pretty much all you could hope for in a Jackie Robinson film biography.
Minus the excitement, which given how well-known Robinson’s story is to baseball fans, is no cardinal sin. And the cast is more adequate than thrilling.
It’s the sort of story that you find yourself hoping they don’t screw up — that the baseball will be convincing, that the racism isn’t watered down, that the actor playing Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) comes off as a human being, not an icon. And in those regards, “42” scores.
A brief history lesson — the narrated-over-newsreel footage context of the end of World War II — is followed by a much longer one, as we see Robinson selected to integrate baseball by the cagey old Brooklyn Dodgers general manager and president, Branch Rickey.
It’s shocking to see Harrison Ford take on a performance this complex — a voice, a pose and a whole demeanor, doing justice to a religious man whose spoken reasons for integrating America’s pastime — “Dollars aren’t black or white. They’re GREEN” — isn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Rickey hunts high and low for a black ballplayer of talent, modesty and forbearance. He needs a star who can take a lot of racist abuse from fans, players, umpires and others. Robinson, a four-sport athlete at UCLA and star of the Kansas City Monarchs, fit the bill.
Helgeland, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (“L.A. Confidential”) and skilled storyteller (“Mystic River”), provides his cleverest touches in the ways he makes Robinson’s story resonate today. The California native had bristled at Southern segregation while in the Army. Helgeland plays up the racial threats Robinson received in spring training at Sanford, Fla. (where teen Trayvon Martin recently met his death).