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'42' does justice to an American hero

New film narrates Jackie Robinson's journey across baseball's color barrier

Jackie Robinson recedes from the audible abuse, from his own visible restraint, and from the eyes of a judging world.

He flees into the dark behind the dugout, and there he lifts his bat and takes the vicious swings he cannot in public -- at the hatred, at the ignorance, at the societal bigotry passed down both by rote and by genes.

Down there, in the catacombs of Philadelphia's Shibe Park, his bat connects only with wall and floor, exploding into sawdust with each feverish swing. He is left holding only a toothpick when Branch Rickey appears and urges him to get back out there.

Robinson takes deep breaths to regain his composure, his face morphing from rage back to serenity.

He tells Rickey, "I'm going to need another bat."

If you are going to tell a story everyone already knows, this is how you tell it: behind the scenes, with revealing insets of the big picture that break down a historical seminal episode to its brittle, fragile human elements.

This is what "42" does. Director Brian Helgeland narrates Jackie Robinson's journey across baseball's and culture's color barrier from the inside out, taking a PG-13 look at the gauntlet of indecent trash talk he had to travel.

Subtitled "The True Story of an American Legend," the film is an obvious tribute to Robinson but also, in a subtle way, to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. There had been nothing previously iconic about Robinson's uniform number, and without Selig's decision in 1997 to retire it universally, a movie titled simply "42" wouldn't immediately connote Jackie.

The film opens on Friday, coinciding with Monday's annual observance of Jackie Robinson Day, a convergence Helgeland believes will raise public awareness and appreciation of Robinson's deeds to new heights.

"As the day [April 15] approaches, it will certainly be a more high-profile event than in recent years," Helegeland said in an exclusive interview with "Right or wrong, a movie has a lot of impact on a subject. People who do not read about events will form their opinions on a movie."

Helgeland, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "LA Confidential," also wrote the "42" screenplay and narrowed Robinson's broad life down to 1945-47, the core of that life.

"He got married [to Rachel], signed with the Dodgers' Minor League affiliate, the Montreal Royals, and then made his Major League debut," recounted Helgeland, who considered himself typical of the audience for which he was writing.

"I thought I knew a lot about Jackie Robinson," Helgeland said, "but when I began researching the story, I realized I knew very little about that time and what he actually went through. I wanted to make a film that was entertaining, but also one that shows what a big breakthrough it was then and how it still resonates today."

The storyteller's main vehicles are Chadwick Boseman, who brings believable athleticism and stoicism to the part of Robinson, and Harrison Ford, who had never before portrayed a historical figure and throws himself into bringing Rickey, himself legendary as The Mahatma, to life.

And Nicole Beharie plays Rachel Robinson, who in Helgeland's re-telling receives the prominent role she deserves but had been denied by the bland accounts of history.

"She obviously is a living link to this story, every bit of it," Helgeland said. "By all accounts, Jackie relied on her quite a bit. She was his rock."

The film is rife with iconic snapshots. Another challenge of condensing a historical development into 120 minutes are the Cliff's Notes scenes that reduce big concepts to isolated 30-second flashes.

In one, a burly white construction worker approaches Jackie and Rachel, who are understandably apprehensive about what is about to go down. But they are taken aback when the guy wishes him well and says he is pulling for him.

The idea for that scene came from Rachel, and Helgeland considered it important to convey the underlying support Robinson had, kept silent by the social inertia of the times.

"One of the great things Robinson did … this idea of segregation and civil rights, he made it OK to discuss it around the dinner table," Helgeland said. "He put a face on it. He humanized it. People who were in silent support of it, he made them declare that support out loud."

In another scene, a little boy is clearly awed to be at a Major League game and openly joins the adulation being showered on all the players -- including Robinson.

The boy's father begins hurling racist invectives at Robinson. The boy uneasily glances at his father -- and loudly begins to echo everything he is yelling.

As uncomfortable as the scene is -- although, nowhere near as unbearable as the nonstop abuse of Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman that chases Robinson into Shibe Park's dungeons -- it makes an important point of how bigotry is handed down through generations.

"42" is not a typical Hollywood emotion-wringer. It often has the feel of a docudrama, letting the facts, more gut-wrenching than the most contrived studio ploys, alternately stun and reassure you. It is not larger than life, because in Robinson's case, that life was large enough to fill the biggest screen.

The filmmakers faithfully capture not just the antagonism but the atmosphere of the late '40s, with obsessive attention to such details as uniforms, equipment, even clubhouse jargon.

Not to mention recreations of some storied, long-gone ballparks. A combination of sharp eyes for suitable locations and green-screen movie magic brings Ebbets Field, Crosley Field and Forbes Field to believable life.

The frameworks for those recreations were such still functioning Minor League ballparks Engel Stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn., Luther Williams Field in Macon, Ga., and Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala.

As a Kansas City Monarch in the Negro League, Robinson had actually played on all three of those fields. When "Action!" and the clap of the board called him into one of those batter's boxes, Boseman felt the invisible footprints.

"Whenever I came up to bat," Boseman recalled, "I always grabbed a little bit of dirt and rubbed it in my hands as a way to pay homage to him."

The Pittsburgh audience might be put off by the Pirates becoming the butts of a running joke, providing the only comic relief in an otherwise gripping human drama. But that is just another historical accuracy: The Pirates of those days were always good for 90 losses, not just laughs. And the scorn shown the Bucs is more than made up for by the marvelous recreation of Forbes Field, where many key game sequences take place, complete with the iconic scoreboard with the giant Longines clock on top and the University of Pittsburgh's Tower of Learning rising behind the left-field bleachers.

An appropriate, if doubtless inadvertent, combination: Playing in the shadow of the Tower of Learning was a man who was A Tower of Teaching.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.