Stepping up to the plate today is the new film "42," a biopic about the legendary Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color line when he suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The film is written and directed by Brian Helgeland, who won an Oscar for his "L.A. Confidential" screenplay, and stars newcomer Chadwick Boseman in the lead role.
Given the inherent drama and heroism of Robinson's story and its roots in America's pastime, it would seem ripe for big-screen treatment. According to a number of movie critics, "42" is indeed a solid effort, but it's perhaps too polished and reverential toward Robinson and doesn't give much insight to the man behind the myth.
The Times' Kenneth Turan wrote, "You almost can't blame writer-director Brian Helgeland for taking an old-fashioned, earnest-to-a-fault approach to the genuinely heroic narrative." He added, "Robinson's story had so much drama in real life, and his sacrifice and pain made such a lasting influence, that '42' ends up being effective in its gee-whiz way almost in spite of itself."
The film is "so on-the-nose, it practically could have been made in 1947," and features strong performances from Boseman, who "brings real force and dignity to the part," and Nicole Beharie as Robinson's wife. Ultimately, Turan said, "you can't help getting caught up in this story, even as you are wishing the telling was sharper than it is."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott wrote that although "the life of Jackie Robinson [is] especially ripe for sweeping, comprehensive treatment," this film "is blunt, simple and sentimental, using time-tested methods to teach a clear and rousing lesson." Helgeland "has honorably sacrificed the chance to make a great movie in the interest of making one that is accessible and inspiring." However, as a result of the film's reverential treatment of Robinson, he ends up "in some ways its least interesting character," Scott said.
The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern found that "at its best, Brian Helgeland's celebration of Jackie Robinson ... rises to a level the subject deserves." At other times, however, it comes across as "ponderously reverential." Boseman "is appealing in the title role, even though he's limited by the predictable writing," and overall "42" is a "handsome studio production" -- although "the downside of all this studio gloss is the cautious studio style." In other words, he wrote, "what's been carefully filtered out of the film as a whole is the tumult and passion of Robinson's life."
Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times called "42" a "valuable film -- a long overdue, serious big-screen biopic about one of the most important American pioneers of the 20th century." But, he added, "this is more a ground-rule double than a grand slam." The problem, Roeper said, is that "'42' falls short in giving us a full measure of the man himself. The Jackie Robinson of '42' is a high school history lesson, lacking in complexity and nuance."
The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips agreed, writing that this "carefully tended portrait of Jackie Robinson treats its now-mythic Brooklyn Dodger with respect, reverence and love. But who's in there, underneath the mythology?" He continued, "This is a smooth-edged treatment of a life full of sharp, painful, inspiring edges."
Ty Burr of the Boston Globe also echoed the sentiment. "The film's handsomely mounted and great to look at," he said, "and it gets the basics right, including the action on the field." On the whole, however, Burr found the film a letdown: "How severe a disappointment will depend on whether you like your inspirational legends served with all the trimmings -- swelling soundtrack music, men rounding third in slow-motion, little boys looking on in awe -- or prefer your heroes life-size, the better to honestly depict their triumphs."