42 feels like a movie that wants to be “important” but it can’t escape the trapping of a sports movie. That is not to say it is bad, 42 is a very good film, just that it lacks the impact of something like Lincoln. It deals with the same problem, with a hundred years worth of progress in between, but 42 tells its story through the lens of sport, a situation the most can comprehend but lends itself to a simple morality, a good v bad, us v them mentality.
Of course, maybe that simple morality works in this case, since there is no simpler issue than segregation. This is not an issue with two sides. Racism is bad. It was bad in 1860, it was bad in 1940, it is bad now. The prejudice of segregation was never anything but ugly. Sometimes though, everybody needs a reminder of where we’ve come from, and this is America’s history.
42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson, specifically his first year in the Major Leagues as the league’s first African American player. At times, it feels truncated to the point of being a highlight reel, but largely it is easy to follow the arc of his, and his team’s season. What the movie really comes down to is its performances. Chadwick Boseman shows us a Jackie Robinson that is a great man with just enough justifiable anger and a tight hold on his temper. Whether it is an accurate portrayal or not, his performance is strong. Jackie is easy to root for. In what seems like the first time in forever, Harrison Ford actually acts. He steps somewhat out of his irascible old bastard persona to play Branch Rickey. He is authoritative and demanding, dictating to his teams that they will have a black player. He couches his religious zeal to do the right thing behind a façade of greed, claiming that he wants a black player to sell tickets to black people, when really he thinks ending segregation is just the right thing to do.
Outside the two stars, the rest of the acting is likewise good. That helps it get through some rough transitions in the script. 42 is s good movie, significantly more weighty than the usual popcorn affair. However, it is not quite on the level it aspires to be.