Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Invictus (2009)


Facing heavy racial tension, white fears, and black hope, newly elected President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) has many issues to tackle, most crucial of which is national pride. Struggling to find a way to unite his nation, he sees an opportunity in the Springboks, South Africa's national rugby team, who still represent white racism during the apartheid to many blacks. With his nation hosting the World Cup in a year, and the Springboks struggling in daily play, Mandela meets with team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) in hopes of creating a team the country can get behind.

As directors go few can express such a sense of style by doing so little as well as Clint Eastwood has. His knack of quiet moments, powerful use of somber piano scores, and seemingly unlimited supply of great scripts to act upon. As a film Invictus is well flawed, but there's hardly an argument that can be made for its lack of power. Imagine yourself in a cell no bigger than the span of your arms at your side for 27 years. How would you react to those that put you in there? These are the questions Mandela, and Invictus, must tackle. Sure the movie Invictus is about the rugby team, and Mandela's impact on them, but far more it's about the man Mandela himself. We spend many scenes following his lonely morning walks with his security detail, the lack of family, and his desire to create a national powerhouse on his own terms. In fact Invictus is almost two films in one. The first half on how to build the nation through Mandela's eyes, while the second half follows Francois Pienaar's task to unite them.

To do so Eastwood brought on two of the most powerful actors today. Freeman's Mandela is strong, sensitive, but always smart and polite (very Jimmy Stewart I must say). While Damon's Pienaar is young, idealistic, but grounded, unsure of what his full potential may be. I must say that neither actor is necessarily jaw dropping. Freeman's performance is aided by wonderful moments of writing, while Damon's character serves merely as a bridge between white and black relations in the country. The rest of the cast comes through in fine form, but none are asked to truly stand out as actors. Though of course Invictus is certain to show close to home examples of how Mandela's decisions affect its people.

To display this Eastwood and Peckham utilize Mandela's personal security detail. The blacks, whose hopes and dreams lay with Mandela, must work with the season veteran white security in order to protect him from attacks. Throughout the film we see their initial hate, their growth under Mandela, and their ultimate unification. Unification is the central ideal behind the film, its real life counterparts, and the message it hopes to bring. In every scene Eastwood seeks to show all facets of South African life in 90's. The horrible living conditions, the weak economy, the racial tensions. All of which must be overcome by the films 2 hour + run time, and Eastwood executes this rather well.

Perhaps the best thing Eastwood does about this transformation is not Hollywoodize. Eastwood shows a series of events that lead to the unification of the nation, not just one overscored, over dramatized, moment. He shows the Springboks interacting with local South African children, their many ups and downs, self conflict, and how they managed to unite among themselves. Of course the crutch of all of this lies in the actual Rugby games. Here is where Eastwood tends to struggle. At times I'm not sure if its Eastwood's lack of knowledge on Rugby but the game is not always the easiest to follow, often halting mid match to tell us the score, and its impact with quick cuts to Mandela. Striking visuals are muddled with CGI laden crowd shots, few of which work that well, meant to show us the national pride in the team.

During the all important big, and final matchup, Eastwood will often quick cut to show families at home reacting to the events, these being represented by a group of blacks at a local rundown bar, and a group of whites at a nice country home. These scenes are far too standardized Hollywood for me, but I understand why. The desire to show the broad appeal is far too grand to be limited solely to stadium reaction, there's a need in a film like this to show national pride. Then again I'm not sure Eastwood's selected method is best at that. The best thing he does is show the entire nation celebrating in the streets at the end, a true display of how important this team has become to the entire nation of South Africa.

Of course there's a lot to admire about Invictus. It's story is one of real life triumph over impossible odds (as a note to film reviewers: you can't fault a film for predictability if it's grounded in historical fact - buy a history book). Invictus manages to be seemingly Hollywood, and at the same time very special, a true powerhouse of a narrative. Much of that I would say lies in Eastwood's brilliant opening hour, full of entertainment, strong moral statements, and a semblance of national dreams. It is here alone that Eastwood manages to create such a powerful film despite its obvious flaws. Sure it's not the greatest film of the year, but it's as solid of an outing as you're likely to see.

The Poem Invictus By William Ernest Henley:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

5 better thoughts:

Ryan McNeil said...

Solid review bro. I'm right with ya in seeing this as a solid, if inperfect film. Freeman seems to have been born to play Mandela.

Andrew K. said...

God you liked this too. With you and The Mad Hatter liking it, I'm feeling cornered. Who knows. Hopefully it's more Mystic River than Million Dollar Baby.

Chase Kahn said...

Ah. I hated this film, it's pure Eastwood blandness and cut-to-the-chase, sentimental, old-fashioned filmmaking in the worst sense.

I was literally offended by its obvious evocations of racial unity through hackeneyed images and relationships.

Plus the song, "Colorblind" which plays when Mandela visits the Rugby Team before the World Cup in the helicopter is embarrasing. Sorry, can't go there with ya.

Univarn said...

@Mad thanks. I agree, I wonder how many Mandela biopics will be made...

@Andrew You don't have to watch this, nor like it, if you don't want to. I just thought it was enjoyable fluff.

@Chase I read your review. The song didn't bother me one bit, nor did its actions. Not sure how much of this is historically accurate, and how much isn't, but there's little denying the impact this team's run had on the country in history.

CMrok93 said...

Strong (if somewhat formulaic) telling of an interesting chapter in the early presidential life of Nelson Mandela, when he took a gamble on keeping the old regime's nearly all-white national rugby team as a unifying symbol for a divided nation.

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