There's nothing about the cast and crew of '42' that would have led anyone to believe it would be anything but a run-of-the-mill biopic about one of baseball's greatest players. Ignoring the fact that few baseball movies have actually worked (the ones that do always seem to star Kevin Costner), Brian Helgeland wasn't exactly a marquee director in Hollywood, Harrison Ford had phoned-in performances for about 20 years, and Chadwick Boseman was primarily a television actor with only one other movie under his belt (the virtually unseen low-budget 'The Kill Hole'). Given all that, Helgeland decided to swing for the fence… and he knocked it out of the park. We're only midway through 2013 as I write this review, but '42' remains my favorite movie of the year.
Jackie Robinson's life and achievements weren't limited to him just being the first African American in professional baseball since the 1800s, but '42' decides to focus only on that event, covering the years from 1945 to 1947. As the movie opens, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Ford) decides that it's time for baseball to break the color barrier. Branch tells his colleagues that it's simply the best thing for the team financially, but we'll find out later in the movie that Branch's reasons are much more personal. Rickey singles out Jack Roosevelt Robinson (Boseman) as the player he wants to bring into the organization. First, however, he'll need to prove he can play ball at the major league level with the Dodgers' International League affiliate, the Montreal Royals.
Both Rickey and Robinson are well aware of the kind of racism that Jackie is going to face, which is one of the reasons Rickey hand-selected Robinson – he knew Jackie had the ability to keep his cool when the worst was hurled at him. Once Robinson makes it to the majors, there's a very uncomfortable scene featuring the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies (Alan Tudyk) in which Jackie gets the 'n' word hurled at him for an extended period of time. I remember watching '42' with an audience in the theater and people literally squirming at this scene. To director Helgeland's credit, he doesn’t shorten or sugar-coat the moment... he lets it play to a very uncomfortable length. It's far from the only scene in '42' in which racism's ugly head makes an appearance (there's another equally uneasy moment where a young boy learns to chant the 'n' word thanks to his father and others around him), but it's the one that garners the most sympathy for the character as well as the understanding of just how hard it must have been not to respond. Jackie's verbal assault on the field is followed by a moment where he walks back to the dugout and into the tunnel leading back to the locker room and has an emotional outburst, smashing his bat into the wall in anger. There's no indication that the real Robinson ever did such a thing (at the game in question or any other), but this movie needs such a moment – showing the audience a release of all the anger and emotion that has been building up inside.
Racism didn't just exist with the teams the Dodgers played, it existed in their own organization as well. A majority of the players didn't want Robinson on their team, going to the point of signing a protest that they would not play on a team Jackie was a part of. However, as would be expected, once they start to see Jackie as a man and not just a person with a different skin tone, the barriers begin to break down. Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) has a great moment late in the movie where he has to go and play with Robinson in Cincinnati (not far from where he grew up in Louisville, Kentucky) and walks over and puts his arm around Jackie so everyone in the crowd (including relatives there) can see where he stands. It seems like a theatrical moment that was written for the sake of the movie, except for the fact that this actually happened. In reality, Reese and Robinson would go on to become very close friends – '42' doesn't spend a lot of time focusing on that friendship (it generally concentrates on the relationship between Robinson and Rickey), but I'm glad to see that this moment made it into the movie.
'42' doesn't put all the focus on the field, however. There's a very strong relationship between Jackie and his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), that is the real anchor for what Robinson accomplishes in baseball. A different script or director would have probably thrown in some scenes where Rachel questions Jackie's career, or asks him to quit, or even has them argue or momentarily break up so they could (in grand movie fashion) make up again later in the film. There's none of that here, and the movie is better for it. Instead, we see two people very much in love, very much going through the same thing together and supporting each other along the way.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the performance given by Harrison Ford. Here's an actor who I loved growing up, but who really hasn't given a good performance in a movie in a long, long time. Ford's Branch Rickey isn't just a great bit of acting by Ford, it's arguably the best he's ever been in a movie. Many will (and many already have) dismissed his performance as showy or cartoonish, without realizing that's exactly the way Branch Rickey addressed people. Ford's character is so interesting and so watchable that he almost manages to steal the movie away from its focus on Robinson. '42' has been subtitled 'The Jackie Robinson Story,' but it might as well have been subtitled 'The Branch Rickey Story' for the light the movie and Ford's performance sheds on the Dodgers' GM. My only hope is that once awards season rolls around, voters will not have forgotten this outstanding portrayal.
Cynics (also known as "movie critics") will tell you that '42' is too old-fashioned, too preachy, or too showy to deserve anything more than a passing glance, but I believe it's one of the real cinematic achievements of the year. It's moving, entertaining, well-acted, beautifully shot, and features that all-too-rarely-seen aspect of a movie that I really love – it's actually about something important. It's not just a hit, it's a home run.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'42' arrives on Blu-ray in a combo pack that includes the DVD version (also available separately) plus an insert for an UltraViolet copy of the movie. The discs are housed in an eco-friendly keepcase, with a slip cover. The Blu-ray is front loaded with an anti-tobacco ad and a trailer for 'Pacific Rim.' The same trailers are front loaded onto the DVD, but the DVD also contains front-loaded trailers for 'Man of Steel,' The Great Gatsby, Jack The Giant Slayer, and an ad for UltraViolet. The menu of the Blu-ray is a single still of the movie poster (the same image as the box cover, but horizontal) with selections along the bottom of the screen.
'42' was shot digitally on the RED Epic camera, and therefore gets a transfer directly from the digital source material here. The results are stunning, with a near flawless picture. Don Burgess was the director of photography on '42,' and he gives the movie an old-fashioned look that I just love. The movie mostly avoids bright colors, giving us a lot of earth tones – grays, greens, and browns. Color has been drained ever so slightly, allowing for a very historical appearance.
While the movie shoots for an old-fashioned look, it maintains the sharpness one would expect from a digitally-shot movie. Skin tones are well-balanced throughout, and details look great (you can see the threads of fabric in the players' uniforms). Blacks are, for the most part, solid with distinguishable shadows. I could detect no noticeable instances of video noise, artifacts, or other issues. Overall, this is a great transfer that fans of the movie should be quite pleased with.
As one can probably imagine, there are a great many moments in '42' where characters are just sitting and talking with each other – so the quality of the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track isn't always noticeable. However, when the story takes the action onto the baseball field, things come to life with every crack of the bat or roar of the crowd. The baseball scenes have been shot to give viewers an on-the-field perspective (attempting to use angles not typically seen during a TV broadcast of a game), and the audio helps add to that feeling. The rear speakers are frequently active, and directionality is both noticeable and well-done. Overall balance is also pleasing, with a nice mix between the dialogue, sound effects, and soundtrack. No glitches or dropouts were evident throughout.
Subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.
Before going into what is on this release, I'd like to take a few paragraphs to note my dissatisfaction with what's not here. '42' is easily one of the best theatrical releases moviegoers have been treated to so far in 2013, and quite possibly the best movie Warner Bros. will release this year. So why such a shoddy treatment on home video? Granted, the transfer has been nicely rendered, but the lack of bonus materials is almost an insult to both the filmmakers and the legacy of Jackie Robinson.
Despite providing a commentary track for every other home video release (although not always on the Blu-ray versions) of his titles, director Brian Helgeland is given no such opportunity here, which is a shame because he may never make a better movie. In fact, this is one of the few titles ripe for a commentary track from several sources – how great would a roundtable commentary from living players who played with or against Robinson have been?
Major League Baseball and many of the national sports cable channels did a ton of promotional events and programming for the release of '42,' yet none of those have made it onto the extras of this release. I remember an hour-long sit-down interview between Bob Costas, Harrison Ford, Chadwick Boseman, and Don Newcombe that would have been a wonderful addition to this Blu-ray and I was surprised that Warner Bros. didn't include it on this release.
As '42' grows in popularity (and I believe it will... it's the kind of movie that has some staying power), I suppose another home video version might not be out of the question down the road. It's just a shame that Warner Bros. couldn't get it right the first time.
'42' tells the story of Jackie Robinson in a way that is both entertaining and educational. Thanks to some wonderful cinematography and a handful of powerful performances, '42' has emerged as not only one of the better baseball movies ever made, but one of the best movies released so far in 2013. The lack of extras on this Blu-ray/DVD/Ultraviolet combo release is a disappointment, but not enough to prevent me from giving '42' a high recommendation.