42 should not be even as good as it is, with the caveat that as good as it is still has some definite problems. But it's an inspirational biopic, and with the monstrously unprepossessing track record that those have, "good with some problems" is like, just one or two steps down from "L'avventura and The Rules of the Game had a baby, and it is this". 42 is frequently corny and telegraphs every emotion we're supposed to feel with a clobbering score; it is far too aware of the momentous importance of the events it depicts; and the graceless way that it inserts subplots and scenes to underscore the thematic development of its A-plot cannot be described as "mechanical", only because machines are useful, efficient things. On the other hand, it's gorgeously acted, it depicts the time period involved in a lively way, and it manages to be something that inspirational biopics, in my experience, virtually never are: inspiring.
The film is about the ascendancy of WWII veteran Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) from the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro leagues, to the minor league farm team, the Montreal Royals, ultimately to the Brooklyn Dodgers, where he became, on 15 April, 1947, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. It's a story that seems like it would be a natural for cinematic treatment, and yet it has only been filmed once: 1950's The Jackie Robinson Story, with Robinson playing himself. That it's taken this long for anybody to finally make a film treating on the events in Robinson's life from 1945-'47 from a perspective that can more or less reasonably take stock of what those events meant for the generations to follow doesn't reflect a lack of interest, but a lack of will: there have been attempts kicking around for years that always run aground of the major studios' fear of making a movie with a black man in the leading role, unless that black man have the surname "Murphy" or "Smith". A fact that tends to give 42 an ironic tinge: Robinson's shattering of the color barrier is a good thing as surely as it possibly could be, but maybe not as definitive as our schoolbooks like to pretend, when making a film about him remains a tetchy prospect 66 years later (one would like to think that the film's box office overperformance might help to shift things a little bit in a more progressive direction, but one would be pitiably incorrect).
At least the film doesn't pretend to live in a self-congratulatory post-racism world (which would have been an extremely obvious place for this project to go): it is very much limited to the very intimate sphere of just these characters going through just these machinations. Even calling it a "biopic" is stretching a point; it covers only a very small portion of Robinson's life and is more concerned with what he did than who he was. To a certain extent, that's inherent to the material, and it speaks to one of the biggest problems with 42, which is that, ultimately, Robinson's story isn't dramatically interesting. The process by which he became accepted within the Dodgers organisation is more a series of incidents than a clear narrative through-line, and 42 is at its best when it (infrequently) approaches baseball as a process to be documented, or when it (more often) simply squats down to watch baseball being played. When it (most frequently of all) attempts to stage some of the major events of Robinson's first season - or, in point of fact, two seasons: but condensing and refining factual material is part of the mission statement of biopics, and not to be criticised on the face of it - it drifts rather into feeling like an arbitrary illustration of disconnected scenes, and while an attempt is made to cast Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) as a kind of villain over the whole course of the thing, it really doesn't take.
Basically there's no "story" here: generally speaking the characters are appealing enough to compensate, but 128 minutes is a great deal of movie to put over on such a pronounced lack of dramatic stakes. It's storytelling by anecdote, and it gets wearily repetitive over the long run, no matter how much pleasurable it is to watch Boseman's happily un-hagiographic portrayal of Robinson as a regular guy just trying to do a job and get by without making any waves one way or the other, or Harrison Ford's hammy incarnation of a garrulous, jowly old man in the form of Dodgers GM Branch Rickey, whose idea this whole "integrating baseball" thing was to begin with. It's not the most high-wire act of cinema, and writer-director Brian Helgeland certainly doesn't try to juice things up with his love of dusky interior medium shots, but it's fun to see Ford acting like he's enjoying himself for the first time since the 1990s. And Boseman is an astonishing find, a deliberately obscure actor whose resolutely unfussy, naturalistic performance is utterly captivating, and would have been worth watching at twice the length.
Take away those two men - and really, just about every performance is at least good, but they're far and away the two biggest parts - and 42 would pretty much deflate. It's an indistinct but well-appointed version of a story that barely exists, with frankly sloppy scene structure and a number of self-conscious "this scene means X" moments that goes well beyond obscenity. It's predictable enough that I was able to call the content of the final text card on the inevitable "what happened in later years" finale, as well as the exact point at which the film would; it's cloying enough about its message to include a tepid scene in which Rickey tells his secret reason for wanting to end baseball's segregation, a betrayal of the canny arch-capitalist whose motivation earlier on was a far more intriguing mixture of wanting to make history and wanting to make the money that came with making history.
In fact, it's probably not a particularly good movie at all; but with the stripped-down, human performance that Boseman gives, creating a Jackie Robinson of flesh and blood, it does manage to do the one absolutely essential thing, and emphasise what a great personal triumph this was, in addition to the more obvious social triumph. And so it's able to actually translate that triumph into something felt, not just something the movie states for our edification, and even if it's a bit of a shambles, 42 at least manages to have all the heart its subject matter needed.