"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America," cultural critic Jacques Barzun wrote, "had better learn baseball." It is a game of individualists all working together as a team. Baseball fans know it is a game of angles and inches. There is a balance between action and inaction. Achievement is earned and recorded. Baseball is a game where numbers are all important.
Those who love this sport don't talk much about its ugly history of racism. That is why it's good to to revisit the life and times of Jackie Robinson who courageously took upon himself the hatred of baseball players, managers, umpires, owners, and fans who wanted to keep baseball segregated. In 1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers' General Manager, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), decides that it is time to integrate the game. His motives are mixed: he thought it was the right thing to do and he also wanted to bring African-Americans into the stadium to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play.
After a national search, Rickey discovers Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman), a leading player on the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League. In their first meeting, he tells the young man that he will have to take an unending barrage of hatred and verbal abuse without ever fighting back. Buoyed by the promise of a new life, Robinson marries Rachel (Nicole Beharie). He is befriended by Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), a black reporter hired by Rickey to shepherd the new player through spring training.
Robinson, with the number 42 on his shirt, lives up to his billing and wows crowds with his ability to steal bases. The low point in the 1947 season is when this laid-back player has to listen to the vicious racist slurs of Philadelphia Phillies' manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk). It takes his teammates a long time to warm to Robinson and that is why a scene where Peewee Reese (Lucas Black) puts his arm around Robinson in front an angry crowd in Cincinnati is so touching.
Some moviegoers will be turned off by writer and director Brian Helgeland's attempt to manipulate our emotions in this saga depicting Jackie Robinson's role as a civil rights figure who singlehandedly crossed the color line and opened the door for other African-Americans to play on major league baseball teams. Did we feel manipulated? Yes, perhaps we did. But 42 does a fine job stretching our emotions in response to the virulent racism which still lingers as a toxin in America. And that's a good thing.
Special features on the DVD include featurettes on stepping into history, full-contact baseball; and the legacy of number 42.