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This Monday, every player in Major League Baseball will wear the same number on his jersey: 42. That was Jackie Robinson's number when he became the first black player in the majors playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Baseball now celebrates April 15th as Jackie Robinson Day. But 66 years ago, of course, not everyone saw his hiring as cause for celebration. Critic Bob Mondello says a new movie called simply "42" is about a history-making moment in sports that pitted racial vitriol against a man who let his talent do the talking.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey tells a promising Negro League shortstop in 1945 that he's hoping to hire him to play at Ebbets Field, he does not make shattering the long tradition of segregated sports sound like a walk in the park.


HARRISON FORD: (as Branch Rickey) People aren't going to like this. They're going to do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse and they'll hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow and they'll say the Negro lost his temper. Your enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his own low ground.

MONDELLO: Twenty-six-year-old Jack Robinson wants clarification.


CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (as Jackie Robinson) You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?

FORD: (as Branch Rickey) No, I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back.

MONDELLO: That took a lot of guts in the 1940s, what with death threats, resistance from white teammates and baseball executives who want to bar him from their ballparks. Writer-director Brian Helgeland lays out the history in broad, clear strokes, with very little nuance but lots of atmosphere, gorgeous digital recreations of long-gone ballparks, for instance. And it helps that this was an era when color commentary was still colorful.


JOHN C. MCGINLEY: (as Red Barber) This game is just as tight as a new pair of shoes on a rainy day. Casey goes into his wind-up...

MONDELLO: Perk for longtime NPR listeners: That's John C. McGinley doing a fine Red Barber imitation.


MCGINLEY: (as Red Barber) Robinson is down. (Unintelligible) stroked him high up on the leg and he is down.

MONDELLO: Injuries, racial slurs, viciousness, that's all on one side, will build sympathy for Jackie Robinson, growls Harrison Ford's Rickey at one point, a line that sounds like Helgeland explaining how his movie works. He never lets actor Chadwick Boseman play Robinson for anything other than saintly nobility. And while that doesn't make him very interesting dramatically, it would be hard to watch "42" without feeling protective of him as prejudice spews or without being heartened when other characters evolve as it were.

Kentucky boy Pee Wee Reese, for instance, throwing his arm supportively around Robinson's shoulder and standing with him at midfield as a Cincinnati crowd jeers...


LUCAS BLACK: (as Pee Wee Reese) Thank you, Jackie.

BOSEMAN: (as Jackie Robinson) What are you thanking me for?

MONDELLO: ...making a case for being on the right side of history.


BLACK: (as Pee Wee Reese) I got a family up there from Louisville. I need them to know. I need them to know who I am.

MONDELLO: You can hear the score is doing too much heavy lifting here though it's irresistible, as is the tug of "42," a real-life profile in courage that would be even more inspiring if it didn't keep trying to knock teachable moments out of the ballpark.


BLACK: Maybe tomorrow we'll all wear 42. That way, they won't tell us apart.

MONDELLO: Not tomorrow but Monday. Shameless, sure. And effective. I'm Bob Mondello.

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