Thursday, December 10, 2009
INVICTUS Film Review
by Brian Holcomb
The Presidency of Barack Obama supposedly ushered in an era of post-racialism. Of course, this is nonsense but it does set up an interesting parallel with the Presidency of fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. Mandela's goal was to create a post-racial South Africa or at the very least a racially cohabitable South Africa and this becomes the core of the new film by Clint Eastwood. Attempting to unify rather than divide, Mandela creates his own "team of rivals" by forcing his black security officers to work side by side with white ones. The fact that these very men may have been their oppressors a few years earlier is not lost on anyone. But Mandela believes in the power of forgiveness and rejects all objections. He intends to prove that the fear Afrikaners have of a South Africa run by blacks is unfounded and that South Africa is for South Africans, white and black. His tool in doing this is a down on their luck rugby club known as the Springboks. Many view this team with their green and gold colors as a symbol of Apartheid and want to change their colors and name. Mandela doesn't agree. He sees the Springboks, much loved by white South Africa, as a way of uniting his country through a shared national pride. When he asks their team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to afternoon tea, Mandela has a simple goal: to inspire the Springboks to win the 1995 World Cup. Not surprisingly, Pienaar is speechless.
INVICTUS is based on a true story and never has a true story seemed more like a bag of movie cliches. This must be an example of life imitating art and B movie art at that. Basically the film is your garden variety underdog sports flick placed within an historical context. You've seen this before in films like Rocky, Rudy, The Bad News Bears, and Hoosiers. All the bases of that genre are covered-the seemingly "impossible" goal of winning, the initial lack of teamwork, and believe it or not, the "star" player is even injured before the big game. Anyone care to guess if he shows up to play before the final quarter?
The intersecting of these sports story cliches with history is what distinguishes the movie. Working from John Carlin's book "Playing the Enemy", screenwriter Anthony Peckham gives Eastwood a real spine to bring it all together: William Ernest Henley's poem, "Invictus". Latin for "Unconquered", it was a source of inspiration for Mandela during his time in Robben Island prison, a mantra that kept him from giving up. He gives these words to Pienaar to inspire him and the spiritual words of human courage and dignity allow him to walk a short distance in Mandela's shoes giving him the drive to unite and motivate his team. Two stories about politics and sport become one story about the power of the human spirit.
Clint Eastwood has gone from the most underrated filmmaker in America to the most overrated in less than a decade. A concious shift from thrillers and action movies to Stanley Kramer type Oscar bait subjects has created an illusion about him. INVICTUS is no different in aesthetic than SUDDEN IMPACT or BLOOD WORK and yet those films didn't garner him BEST DIRECTOR accolades. Eastwood just does what he has always done and that is to tell the story in the simplest, most unaffected way possible. There are no dazzling shots here, no slight of hand montage or startling transitions. He has mastered the form of classical Hollywood studio filmmaking. A form that prided itself on making the gears as invisible as possible. This could be construed as old fashioned and right from the start there is something very quaint about the way Eastwood tells this story. Everything seems stripped down to the most basic of elements. It seems as if he were retelling some ancient myth about heroes and not a realistic story at all. There is virtually no characterization in the film that goes beyond the archetypal. Both star roles are defined as much by the real life figures as by the star persona playing them. The Mandela presented in the film is the one most of us hold in our imaginations-a man of near indomitable will and courage. Morgan Freeman plays the role with all the gravitas and dignity he carries with him in even the smallest of roles. Any suggestion of complexity such as his divorce or his estrangement from his daughter is used merely to create a sense of isolation around the man. He is meant to be a kind of Gandolf figure in the story, a dead "father" whose spirit inspires a nation.
Matt Damon's Francois Pienaar is even more abstract. He isn't a person so much as an idea-white South Africa coming to terms with it's past. To go a bit further with this Joseph Campbell reading, the "Invictus" poem is used like the Force from STAR WARS. When Pienaar meets Mandela, he is visibly shaken by the experience as though he were touched by God. The voice of Mandela reading the stirring final lines of the poem, "I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul" play out repeatedly in Pienaar's mind until its ghostly power finds a context when he visits Mandela's 6 foot square cell on Robben Island. Pienaar and Mandela, white and black, politics and sport all come together there.
You might think from the above description that the movie is actually "good". In one respect you would be right. INVICTUS sometimes works better than it deserves to as an old fashioned,predictable entertainment. In another filmmaker's hands the Capra-corn would just be too much. Eastwood's poker faced style keeps the film grounded-not in reality but in some old movie world of myth. But in the end the film is just too obvious and simplistic to have any lasting effect. Everything is a slave to three act storytelling taking us from racial divide on both sides to forced equality and finally racial unity symbolized by hugs. The Springboks at first refuse to sing the new National Anthem but of course at the World Cup they do and with great pride; Pienaar's father spews racial venom throughout but relents when his son has an extra ticket for their black housekeeper-a woman seen previously as an employee at best; Mandela's rainbow guard begin full of suspicion and anger but end up as real colleagues and friends-even playing Rugby themselves on the Presidential lawn. Not only does Mandela proudly watch this from his window with an approving smile but he is then made to say, "See. Do you still think it's just a sport now?" The director even includes a kind of Greek chorus of songs co-written by himself that are awfully unsubtle as in the appropriately titled "Colorblind". That one actually made me cringe a bit.
Regardless of the fact that INVICTUS is based on a true story, the film is exactly the kind of film Eastwood has always made. A genre film not some deep and moving treatise on the human condition. It's a popular entertainment in which the "good guys" in green and gold beat the bad New Zealanders in BLACK. Believe it or not, they are even known as the "ALL BLACK". Mandela gets his moment for South Africa on the international stage and gives the cup to Pienaar who thanks him for being so awesome. All that was forgotten once again was a medal for Chewbacca.