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Review: '42' inspiring, emotional portrayal of Jackie Robinson story

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You don't necessarily have to be a fan of the game to root for "42," writer-director Brian Helgeland's emotional look at the pioneering plight of baseball great Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player to break Major League Baseball's color barrier.

Following a prologue about segregation in baseball and the establishment of the Negro Leagues, "42" chronicles two years in Robinson's life from 1947-1949. It begins with the bold move of Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), a fervently religious curmudgeon of a baseball executive who at 65 decides that the time has come for the game to be integrated. There's a deeply personal motivation for the move, as we come to learn, but on the surface, Rickey the businessman admits he also wants to make money for the team.

Amid Jim Crow laws and racism still running rampant in America, Rickey, of course, knows bringing an African-American player to the big leagues will be extremely difficult, so he tells Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) that he will sign him on one condition: Do not react to the barrage of bigotry that's about to come his way. By doing so, he would be playing against his detractors on their own low ground. The hard fact to accept is, racism is everywhere. Many of Robinson's new Dodger teammates, in fact, even petition to keep him off the team.

Even though it's easy to imagine that Robinson faced a lot worse abuse than Helgeland gives us with "42," the film's PG-13 rating allows for the liberal use of the N-word, which will undoubtedly shake up audiences. In one particular scene, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) steps out of the dugout to deliver a blistering verbal assault on Robinson, hurling every imaginable epithet at Robinson each time he steps up to bat. It's an unnerving scene but a necessary one, especially if Helgeland wants to drive any sort of point home.

See the trailer for "42" below.

The film has a brilliant cast, led by terrific performances by Boseman -- a naturally charming and charismatic actor -- and the venerable Ford. Boseman handles the highs and lows of Robinson's path from the Dodgers' minor league club in Montreal to his first year in Brooklyn with the right amount of gravitas; and Ford shows at 70 that he's willing to take risks, and better yet, succeed in his rare portrayal of a real-life character.

Ford brings real gusto to the larger-than-life, Rickey, bringing heart and passion to a role that's so vital in American history. It's electrifying to see him channeling the grumbly-voiced, baseball businessman, particularly when he defends Robinson against his prejudiced executive colleagues.

Interview: "42" star Harrison Ford

While "42" clearly belongs to Boseman and Ford, several talented actors step up to the plate, for the lack of better words, to deliver in pivotal supporting roles.

Relative newcomer Nicole Beharie commands your attention every time she steps on screen as Robison's wife and emotional rock, Rachel, while Andre Holland's voice and presence resonate as the film's narrator, baseball writer Wendell Smith, an African-American journalist who himself would go on to become a pioneer himself. Minneapolis native T.R. Knight is terrific, too, Harold Parrott, Rickey's traveling secretary and one of his closest allies.

Robinson's baseball colleagues are well-represented from the spitfire presence of Christopher Meloni as legendary manager Leo "Nice Guys Finish Last" Durocher, to Lucas Black as the affable Pee Wee Reese -- the Dodgers' famed shortstop who teams with Boseman for one of the most emotional moments in the film when Reese stands up for Robinson in front of an ugly crowd in Cincinnati.

As difficult as the hatred is to stomach at times, "42" manages to hit on all sorts of emotions. The film is informing to be sure, but it's also very entertaining, and manages to find humor in very unlikely places. To counter Tudyk's festering portrayal of Chapman, Hamish Linklater steps up as pitcher Ralph Branca -- who in one of the funniest scenes in the film, bumbles through double entendres while trying to convince Robinson that he's an equal in the locker room.

With all the right players in place, the best thing "42" has going for it is that it feels real. For better and for worse, the recreation of the ballparks, styles, atmosphere and attitudes of the late 1940s is stunning, and it's all complimented by Mark Isham's moving score, which helps establish the film's classic feel.

While the "42" isn't perfect -- it feels a bit too Hollywood at times -- it certainly has earned its place in the hall of great baseball stories put on film. But what makes this film stand-apart is that it finds the right balance in telling one of the most important stories the game has ever known. Even more beautiful, it's not just a baseball story, it's an American story -- and a hopeful, inspiring and important one at that.

"42," rated PG-13, 3 1/2 stars out of four

What other local critics are saying ...

Chris Hewitt in his 3 star Pioneer Press review calls the film "inspiring," but was hoping for a more well-rounded portrait of Robinson.

Colin Covert gives the film 3 1/2 stars in his Star Tribune review, praising Ford and Boseman for creating, under the guidance of Helgeland, "multidimensional, emotionally complex men." He also says Boseman, like Robinson, "enters this game a promising rookie and leaves the field a champ."

Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11” and WCCO Radio. As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.

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