The film begins with the legend of Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), the idiosyncratic owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers eager not to make history but to acknowledge that the only color significant to him is "green." Winning will bring the fans out, and the roster move that will put the Dodgers over the top is the acquisition of Negro League barnstormer Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league history. In an audacious introduction, Robinson (newcomer Chadwick Boseman) is seen under the dim lights of a night game, promising a headstrong pitcher that he's going to steal home right in front of him. Rickey's words are lightning; Robinson's on-field athleticism is all the thunder you'd need.
Helgeland is smart enough to know this story has been told before, so "42" earns distinction through what seems like meticulous research. There's a hefty amount of screentime dedicated to Robinson's teammates promising a mutiny, a laborious petition-driven process that involves several Dodgers voting to not play alongside Robinson himself. Rickey uses coded terms when he tells a minor league manager that he's aware of his "cultural upbringing" after overhearing him slur "nigger" towards the player, a chiding that masks condescension with a fake tolerance towards ignorance.
It's here where Helgeland shows his truest interests and instincts. Rickey correctly surmises that Robinson's strength in letting this cascade off his back plays as stoicism to the media, and sure enough, it taints Chapman's professional reputation, revealing that a portion of this social revolution spearheaded by Robinson was due to the actions of a few select reporters (an idea given short shrift here, though certainly enough to carry its own film). But later, in a photo opportunity, Chapman tones down the aggression without fully embracing Robinson, sagely noting like a member of the Boy's Club the tradition of delivering similar slander towards the Jewish Hank Greenberg and the Italian Joe DiMaggio. With this moment, as well as Major League Baseball's last minute decision to suspend manager Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) for adultery given pressure from the Catholic Youth Organization, "42" emphasizes that, for better or worse, the sport considered America's Pastime has a long, embedded history of appealing towards an exclusionary Good Ole Boy appeal. As Rickey notes when he paints a portrait of the flood of incoming black players, it's not as simple as people wanting to "play ball," expressing uncertainty that it ever was, suggesting early and mid-twentieth century institutions projecting an insincere image of American culture.
"42" is excessively retro, neglecting the urge to pepper scenes with comic relief or oppressing, flashy conflict. But it's the sort of approach that keeps these characters from being "rebels" with phony redemptive character arcs, like stern young black reporter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), hired to work the Robinson beat and provide media coaching. The cumulative effect of this approach, however, places a surprising emphasis on the chemistry between Boseman and Nicole Beharie as his wife Rachel. Like Boseman, Beharie is a carryover from "The Express" (these types of films seem to cast from an awfully small pool) and the two of them have undeniable chemistry, Beharie's startlingly beautiful smile bursting through the screen like a beacon. As much history is being created on the field, it can't compare to the magic created between these two performers. [B+]