The best sports films are often those where enjoyment is not entirely dependent on a love of the game in question, and Brian Helgeland’s 42 (2013) fits that criteria perfectly. Unflinching in its depiction of the legendary Jackie Robinson’s journey from the Negro leagues to Major League Baseball, the stirring material is matched by some pitch-perfect performances. That journey begins in 1945, where Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) seeks out Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) in a bid to break the colour barrier in baseball. For daring to break that unwritten law, both manager and athlete are branded outcasts.
Robinson bearing the brunt of the abuse from players and fans alike. As Rickey repeatedly warns, Robinson must “have the guts not to fight back” if his talent is to shine. Helgeland does a great job at showing Robinson’s prowess on the field; the well realised baseball sequences show a clear love of the game, and whether you’re a fellow fan or not there is joy to be had in watching Robinson “discombobulate” his opponents. Those triumphs are all the more cathartic because we share in Robinson’s lows as well. A particularly powerful scene, in which Alan Tudyk’s racist coach Ben Chapman spouts off some abhorrent obscenities, sees number 42’s tolerance tested to the limit – and the audience is right there with him.
It’s a testament to the excellent performances that those moments hit as hard as they do. In his most challenging role to date, Boseman’s Robinson is suitably charismatic and earnest, giving us a human portrayal of an icon that’s easy to get behind. However it is Ford’s transformative turn as the God-fearing Rickey that is the standout here; there are several scenes where the actor raises his level, and it’s a performance worthy of a Supporting Actor Oscar nod.
Additionally, Helgeland – who has previously penned Mystic River (2003) and L.A. Confidential (1997) – ensures that the supporting characters are equally well-rounded, and the solid supporting cast are all effective in their roles. There’s no denying the familiar presence of sport movie tropes, but 42 loses none of its appeal because of them, and there is a lot to admire in Robinson’s well-told story. Fittingly, the film’s postscript tells us that 42 is the only number ever to be retired by all of baseball, and all involved can take heart from the fact that they have done the iconic figure justice.