As soon as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy left the White House for her family home in December 1963, she contacted Time magazine’s Theodore H. White, hoping to get him to visit her for an exclusive interview as soon as possible. Getting a jump on her husband’s legacy before the historians got to it was “almost an obsession,” as she herself put it later, and with that in mind she played White the soundtrack from Broadway’s current sensation, the Richard Burton / Julie Andrews musical Camelot. The climax of the number, sung by a dying king, spoke of a magical but doomed kingdom: “Don’t let it be forgot / That once there was a spot / For one brief, shining moment / That was known as Camelot.” Kennedy’s favorite number, it soon became the unofficial name of his tragically abbreviated Presidency.
42, the new film from writer/director Brian Helgeland (A Knight’s Tale, The Order), doesn’t have the emotional thrust of a Lerner and Loewe musical, but about 10 minutes into this Jackie Robinson biopic, when our hero marries his girl and brings her along to training camp, the parallels to the current kingdom become obvious: Perhaps it was racism or marketability or both that kept the story of Major League Baseball’s desegregation from the silver screen so long, but Obama’s second term — and the fact that he wed someone like Michelle — provides a perfect emotional backdrop. Jackie’s wife Rachel, played with just the right mix of sass and sweetness by Nicole Beharie, isn’t just supporting him; she’s goading him onward through the shitstorm.
Focusing on MLB’s first black player as a husband as well as an icon is a refreshing change of POV, as is the unfortunately recent concept of telling a black man’s history through his own eyes, unfiltered by some white mentor’s. (Though Harrison Ford’s first “old man” performance as Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey is getting justifiable press.) As Robinson, Chadwick Boseman is quietly powerful. But it’s his wife who humanizes him.
The reason Helgeland’s film doesn’t have enough on the ball (sorry) to define this particular era of hope and change is that, like Obama himself, his facility at inspiration continuously outstrips his skill at the nuts-and-bolts stuff. This movie practically glows and swells with uplifting righteousness in every frame, but it’s only got the one story to tell; the complex world of real human interaction is missing. 42 relays a fascinating and important story as a bloodless anecdote; if you come into it previously aware that baseball used to be segregated and that quite a lot of whites wanted it to stay that way, this movie won’t have much to say. It has an important message, but you never feel as if you really know it.
Nevertheless, the performances occasionally make it possible to glimpse the heart beating inside the history. An unrecognizable Ford goes beyond mere crustiness in his portrait if Rickey, even if his face doesn’t — his mouth’s been taking some critical hits for cartoonishness, but not what comes out of it. Boseman plays it like the star himself, letting everything happen about him as his alternately fierce and gentle eyes do much of the talking. As famed Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher, Christopher Meloni sells the film’s most hard-headed (and therefore best) speech about change and how it doesn’t necessarily bring hope to everyone. And finally there’s Michelle, uh, Rachel, the character through whom her famous husband finally becomes accessible. She does what Helgeland can’t: she makes Robinson more than a Cooperstown exhibit. History alone will tell whether Obama will be thought of as someone who knew how to play ball, but if his novelty doesn’t end up outstripping his policy, it’s partially because women like Michelle — and Jacqueline — fight their own personal war to frame his legacy. Hollywood, like Washington, should expect as much of its male storytellers.