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updated: 4/11/2013 11:46 AM

Feel-good '42' steals a base for social justice

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  • Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) faces racism on the field and off in "42."

      Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) faces racism on the field and off in "42."

  • Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) lectures Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) on sportsmanship in the fact-based sports drama "42."

      Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) lectures Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) on sportsmanship in the fact-based sports drama "42."

  • Video: "42" trailer

 
 

"42" is an old-fashioned sports underdog drama that follows the historic, inspirational story of Jackie Robinson, the first black ballplayer to break into the lily-white baseball big leagues as a Brooklyn Dodger.

(The movie's opening day, Friday, April 12, arrives three days before the 66th anniversary of Robinson's major league debut back in 1947.)

As directed and written by Brian Helgeland, "42" sticks to the time-tested formula of a talented young athlete undergoing trials of courage and skill before achieving greatness in playing sports.

The charismatic Chadwick Boseman plays Robinson as a dynamic, driven athlete blessed with quiet strength and a superhuman capacity to restrain his anger and rage against the rampant racism that constantly prods and tests him during the 1940s.

Park Ridge native Harrison Ford plays Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Bible-verse-spouting president and general manager who picks Robinson as the player to knock down the door of racism in professional baseball.

At its best, "42" serves as a valuable reminder of just how far American sports and society have evolved on issues of racial equality during the past six decades.

In 1947, Robinson confronts racial slurs and hatred, not only from opposing team members allowed to openly hurl racial abuse, but from his own teammates who sign a petition to get the black guy off the team or they'll not play.

Fortunately for Robinson and the game of baseball (and basic American values), Branch Rickey proves to be an amusingly obstinate old coot.

Leaving behind any vestiges of his iconic characters Han Solo and Indiana Jones, Ford dives headlong into character role nirvana as Rickey. He chews the vintage scenery as if relishing a fine porterhouse steak.

He's funny. Eccentric. Strong. Daring. And lovably craggy in the way that great character actors Walter Brennan and Walter Huston used to be on the silver screen.

Rickey quickly becomes Robinson's mentor, coach, friend and disciplinarian, constantly reminding the player that he can never lose his temper, or he will lose this grand opportunity to open doors for other minorities in white-dominated institutions.

"42" offers several nicely executed scenes from Robinson's remarkable life: his romance with his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie, mustering appropriate steely concern); his encounters with the legendary Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni); how he inspires black lads with hope for a better future; and his friendship with shortstop Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), who publicly stood by Robinson at the potential cost of his own popularity.

Helgeland, known mostly for his literate screenplays for "L.A. Confidential" and "Mystic River," turns "42" into a work of sheer Americana by adding Mark Isham's Copland-esque music.

Even though "42" boasts Robinson as the numerical title character, Ford's Rickey dominates the movie.

He is the big league Pygmalion who molds Robinson into the temper-resistant titan he needs to fulfill his plan to institute the Methodist ideals of social justice he holds so dearly.

Sometimes, "42" seems to be less about a black ballplayer who broke the color line than about the white team manager who really broke the color line with the help of a black ballplayer.

Either way, "42" pitches an old-fashioned, spiritually uplifting sports drama at the same time it hits a resonant and timely home run for social equality.

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