While baseball dramas will always be a tougher sell on this side of the pond, Brian Helgeland's earnest biopic has a better wide-appeal hook than did 2011's Oscar-nominated Moneyball. It follows the little-known-here story of Jackie Robinson, the African American baseball player whose entry into the Major League in 1942 ended six decades of racial segregation within the sport. He's portrayed affably and respectfully by newcomer Chadwick Boseman, in a performance that shuns histrionics in favour of simmering righteous anger.
Robinson is warned early on by Harrison Ford's avuncular Branch Rickey, the team executive who signs him to the Brooklyn Dodgers and becomes his mentor, that he can't afford to get mad. Despite the constant barrage of provocation from all sides - from discriminatory bathroom policies to openly racist jibes from fellow players to the outburst-hungry press - he's a live wire who must stay defused at all costs.
"You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?" Robinson asks, furiously, and for much of the film we're right there with him, impotently enraged. The staggering injustices of segregation-era America are familiar, but director Brian Helgeland presents them here in persuasive and largely unsentimental fashion; although Robinson and his new wife Rachel (Shame's Nicole Beharie in a spirited, endearing turn) learn to "turn the other cheek", the viewing experience remains galling.
One extended, agonising sequence sees rival manager Ben Chapman (an against-type Alan Tudyk) relentlessly taunting an increasingly disturbed Robinson during a crucial game. Emotionally manipulative though this midpoint set piece and the cathartic moment that follows undeniably are, they work in precisely the way they're meant to.
Helgeland's script is not subtle; this is a story told in big, broad strokes, light on nuance and populated by archetypes rather than people. There's the odd gesture towards character texture - Robinson admits he loathes being the underdog because he has never liked to depend on anyone for help - but overall 42 wants you to look at the big picture, not the brush strokes. The only aspect in which this becomes a problem is Mark Isham's hand-wringing score, which swells as if on cue behind every emotional moment, detracting from the strong performances and largely smart writing.
42 is as earnest and conventional a biopic as you'll see this year, at times playing it safe to a fault. But Boseman gives a winning and utterly committed lead performance, Harrison Ford hasn't been this much fun in years, and Helgeland hits all the right inspirational notes when it counts. A predictable but stirring underdog story that's less po-faced than it initially threatens to be.