A Natural

Brian Helgeland’s ‘42’

When historical events fall into line with Hollywood’s eternal quest for easy thrills and easy tears, the result can be a movie like 42. The story of how Branch Rickey began the integration of major-league baseball by hiring Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers lends itself naturally to the big screen by offering a stark confrontation of goodness with the evil of racial bigotry. Some critics have complained that the film’s portrayal of Robinson lacks psychological depth, but 42 isn’t a cradle-to-grave biopic. It deals with a single course of action in a single year (1947). There’s no need here for psychological probing, and to introduce moral ambiguities into this story would be as much of a falsification as to withhold ambiguity from a movie about the causes of the Vietnam War.

The real artistic challenge for writer-director Brian Helgeland was to avoid merely coasting on the obvious sentimental opportunities inherent in this true story and to capture the reality of a time when a certain American goodness and a peculiar American evil clashed with a gratifying outcome. The period recreation is convincing without being fussy (though the golden-brown tone of Don Burgess’s photography is a little too nostalgic for my taste). We find ourselves back in an era when men wore hats, jackets,  and ties to the office, and there weren’t...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.