It’s unabashed hero worship, but it works.
Those are my thoughts on 42, the biographical film about Jackie Robinson and his integration into white baseball. The general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers asks him to join the team on one condition: He can’t fight back when others inevitably try to rile him.
The film doesn’t hold back on the racism Robinson faced. There’s the point in the film where he is forced to leave town in the middle of the night during spring training because a mob is coming. The Philadelphia Phillies manager taunts Robinson mercilessly during a game, showing how difficult it was for Robinson to hold back while others spewed racism.
But the film is full of hero worship. Robinson, his wife, and the Dodgers’ general manager who signed Robinson onto the team are almost portrayed as saintly. It’s easy to tell who is good and who is bad, and there aren’t many people who fall in a gray area.
What else can you expect?
It would have been surprising if the movie had made Robinson into a more rounded character. Most of the people are somewhat one-dimensional. The audience just needs to complete the simple task of placing a character in the good or bad category. Probably the most well-rounded character is the Dodgers general manager, whose motivation for integration in baseball is sometimes murky. Is it because he is a Methodist? Or is it because he wants to make more money? A third explanation he gives is that he feels remorse for not helping the cause sooner.
The general manager is a lot more intriguing as a character than Robinson. That’s what happens with hero worship — we end up stripping away some of the more interesting aspects.
But in 42, it works to have an unambiguous story. The movie is as American as apple pie. It has an easy premise to understand and is accessible for any age group. It speaks to our beliefs and doesn’t challenge them.
Isn’t that what baseball, the national pastime, is all about?
With a film like this, I wouldn’t expect anything else.