What could easily have been a sentimental slog is given a spark of intelligent wit by writer-director Helgeland (A Knight's Tale). This is the story of an iconic figure from American sport who had a massive impact on society at large, and Helgeland focusses on the elements we can most readily identify with while quietly stressing how important and, yes, inspirational this story is.
In 1945 post-War America, most states still have segregation laws on the books, and black baseball players are sidelined in their own league. But Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Ford) wants to break this barrier, and drafts Jackie Robinson (Boseman), making him the first black player in the Major League. Jackie is a determined, principled young man who struggles to hold his tongue in the face of blatant bigotry. But he gets help from Branch and team manager Leo (Meloni), and support from his equally feisty wife Rachel (Beharie). There's also a young black journalist (Holland) who works with him to further both their causes. But it takes Jackie a little longer to win over his teammates.
The film portrays endemic racism as the hideously ugly thing it is: socially accepted cruelty and prejudice. In truth, it was probably a lot worse than shown here, but we certainly don't miss the point. Especially since this kind of abusive language is never heard in today's politically correct climate. And Helgeland also creates complex characters who can't be tagged as heroes or villains, played with cheeky energy by a very strong cast. Boseman oozes charisma in the central role, undercutting what could be a too-saintly characterisation with sensitivity and steeliness. And Ford shines in a rare character role as a cantankerous old guy who simply won't take no for an answer.
In fact, the film's only weak point is Mark Isham's far-too-inspirational score, which constantly surges to punch every key moment. But that's a minor quibble when Helgeland crushes any potential schmaltz with dry wit, dark drama and a realistic attention to period detail. So in the end we can't help but feel the importance of Jackie's achievements both on and off the field. He was a reluctant hero who rose to the challenge and changed the world in the process. So it's not surprising that his jersey number 42 is the only one retired by every baseball team on earth.
Run time: 128 mins
In Theaters: Friday 12th April 2013
Box Office USA: $95.0M
Box Office Worldwide: $94.4M
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Production compaines: Warner Bros.
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
Fresh: 140 Rotten: 38
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Brian Helgeland
Producer: Thomas Tull
Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
Starring: Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, T.R. Knight as Harold Parrott, Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, Nicole Beharie as Rachel Isum, Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, John C. McGinley as Red Barber, Ryan Merriman as Dixie Walker, Jud Tylor as Laraine Day, Brett Cullen as Clay Hopper, Brad Beyer as Kirby Higbe, Lucas Black as Pee Wee Reese, Andre Holland as Wendell Smith, Alan Tudyk as Ben Chapman, Hamish Linklater as Ralph Branca, James Pickens Jr. as Mr. Brock, Gino Anthony Pesi as Joe Garagiola, Kelley Jakle as Alice
Also starring: Brian Helgeland