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Mariano Rivera, the legendary Yankee closer, will take the mound for the last time this season then he will enter the history books as the winningest closer ever to play the game. He’ll also be the last player to ever wear the number 42. It was retired from baseball back in 1997 in honor of Jackie Robinson, the man who broke through baseball’s racial barriers and opened the field for future greats like Rivera.

Grand Slam

Jackie and Branch make baseball history
Jackie and Branch make baseball history

The new movie titled, simply, 42 is a terrific tribute to that original legend and it features a cast that is, yeah, almost pitch perfect.

Baseball used to be anathema at the movies. It wasn’t until the warm glow of Caleb Deschanel’s masterful cinematography in The Natural (1984) effectively captured the very scents and essence of spring that the tide finally started to turn. Since then, popular movies like Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own, The Sandlot, and Moneyball have all married various aspects of the game with the moviegoing experience. Now 42 easily fits into their ranks, merging some of the mythology and nostalgia of The Natural with the underbelly business of Moneyball.

Of course, for a biographical account such as 42 to work, it all hinges on the cast. To a man (and woman), they hit it out of the park.

At the top of the lineup is Jackie himself. This is breakout material for Chadwick Boseman, who has moved up from the minors (television series work in Lincoln Heights, Fringe, and Justified, among others) to provide a credible, agreeable portrayal of Jackie. Nicole Beharie (The Express) is equally appealing as Jackie’s wife, Rachel.

They’re young, they’re attractive, and they’re sharing the screen with the movie’s most unlikely surprise: Harrison Ford. After a string of dud roles, Ford is actually good again. Really good. He even brandishes an accent, or something like it. It’s not that gentle spin on the Scottish brogue he pulled off in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s something more severe. Actually, maybe it’s not really even an accent. It’s more of a guttural affectation. In any case, as Branch Rickey, who was, in the 1940s, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ equivalent of Billy Beane for the Oakland A’s at the turn of this century, Ford has found an age-appropriate role into which he can really sink his teeth. Finally. Fantastic!

Double Play

Amid the drama and ugliness of post-war America’s racism and persistent ignorance, 42 digs in and tactfully captures the slow, gradual change in sensibilities.

It’s not that Rickey carried with him a higher calling, even though Ford manages to put the fear of God into people while rattling off Bible references.

No. Rickey acknowledges the business side of his determination to see Jackie succeed. He knows there are a whole lot of talented men out there, hungry and eager to prove themselves, but unable to merely because of their skin color. Rickey wants to win the World Series and he knows where the fresh, affordable talent is to help him do it.

Credit goes to writer/director Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale) for crafting what is unmistakably a labor of love. The drama was right there, all along, simply waiting to be told, but Helgeland also finds some nice moments of humor, and much more importantly, he finds the characters and the humanity.

Out of the Park

Much like how Deschanel’s cinematography played a key role in The Natural, as did Wally Pfister’s in Moneyball, the same can be said of Don Burgess’ work in 42. Burgess (Forrest Gump), using the magic of Red digital cameras, coaxes out the dulled colors reminiscent of 1940s Kodak film. It is every bit as critical to the sense of time and place as all those period costumes and awesome, stylish cars.

Taking that step back in time to 1945 is to revisit a wholly different America, a black or white world in which skin color determined which entrance was used and whether or not a person could use the facilities provided by a business.

Even after World War II, some of the Civil War’s social damages still lingered. From that angle alone, 42 is a worthwhile educational effort. That’s not to stay it’s a frame-by-frame replica of a bygone era, but it is a cut above the typical Hollywood biographical movie.

It’s a nature of the thing to have to make composite characters and simplify certain thematic elements. Here Helgeland focuses on the more noble deeds and character traits of Branch and Jackie and by doing so, he provides a renewed source of heroes to help America work through its ongoing growing pains.