Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Invictus (2009) Review

Two out of three is still a passing grade

Eastwood, Freeman, and Mandela. When you hear those three names in the same sentence concerning collaboration in movies, you get pretty damn excited to see what the results will be. Just by hearing the first two, one should expect some great outcomes. But throw in Nelson Mandela, and the expectations rise to exponential results. Having Matt Damon also be involved is just a bonus. I mean Clint Eastwood has been involved with multiple Academy Award-winning films, with at least two of his directing jobs winning both the Best Picture and Director statuettes (Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby). Morgan Freeman has proven time and time again why he is one of the finest actors of our time. Also, Damon’s career has grown to show a great deal of range in roles that he takes. That is not to say that these three fine men are not prone to making lesser quality products, but they are in the top tier of Hollywood actors and directors. With that said, Invictus turns out to be one of those lesser efforts, proving to contain too many lofty ambitions for the filmmakers to handle.

Plot Synopsis: The movie sets off in 1990, with Mandela's release after 27 years in prison back into South Africa, which seems to be very close to a racial civil war. Then, we are quickly shown his rise back into power, culminating in his election as the country’s president. One of the challenges he faces is that many other members of his party want to dismantle the Springboks, the South African rugby team, because they feel that the team is representative of years of white oppression. Mandela, however, sees this as a fatal political calculation that will further polarize the population. Realizing the potential for unity if the team (which is only cheered on by the white minority) steps up their game and wins the 1995 World Cup which will be hosted by South Africa, Mandela sets up a meeting between himself and the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar. At first, Pienaar is confused as to the purpose of this seemingly superfluous meeting, but afterwards he begins to understand Mandela’s future goals and motives for improving the team. While his fellow teammates are skeptical and downbeat, especially after a barrage of losses, Pienaar has faith that he can improve their morale and skill by the time the World Cup rolls around.


Of the three men I named before, the two that certainly cannot be faulted for the movie’s shortcomings are Freeman and Damon. While Freeman was quite an obvious choice to play Nelson Mandela, he doesn’t slump it like so many other actors that get typecast in roles. Mandela is not shown as being invulnerable, as evidenced by a few scenes that showcase the cracks and pressure points in his personality. There is one particular scene where he is about to go on his usual late-night walk, but then one of the new guards asks about his family, which upsets him and causes him to skip the walk. Yet even when in those times of weakness, Freeman still showcases Mandela’s stern will and firm grasp of the situation. It’s typical Freeman, but typical Freeman is still great Freeman. Damon is given the less showy role as Pienaar, but the dynamic between him and Mandela provides some compelling viewing. Just as Mandela must try and rectify the splits in ethnicity, Pienaar must corral his disapproving players into a strong team force. There’s an excellent scene where Pienaar brings his team to the prison cell where Mandela was held for so many years. While the rest of the players look in and walk by, Pienaar takes a moment to step into Mandela’s shoes and imagine the hardship and trials that the man had to go through in order to reach his goals, allowing him to realize that he must do the same for his team. It also helps that Damon is quite good in the role, both in terms of acting and nailing the South African accent.


Eastwood, on the other hand, who I still admire a lot both in front of and behind the camera, doesn’t get a feel for how to express the full effects and outcomes of the story. One of the most important aspects, the Springboks’ rise from one of the lesser teams to World Cup finalists, is woefully shortchanged. There is almost no development shown as to how the team just suddenly became good and started winning games. Scenes meant to give depth to Mandela’s bodyguards instead replace this pretty significant transformation. It’s an interesting dynamic to show the new, primarily black guards now having to deal with white guards from the old regime being employed by Mandela, but it would have been better left as a footnote added to the big picture, instead of receiving substantial screen time. These scenes are also the main reason for the relatively slow pace, which could’ve been improved had they been trimmed or cut entirely. For most of the running time though, Eastwood’s style, which mainly focuses on the actors’ performances with little visual flash, is a good fit for the story. He lets the story breathe on its own and doesn’t always try to show off….usually. In one instance, an important moment in the final rugby game, Eastwood suddenly flips on the slow-motion cliché switch to emphasize the moment. This wouldn’t bother me so much if the slow-motion didn’t drag…on…for…so…long. Stick with the actor showcasing Clint, that’s where you shine.

However, it must be said that before that scene comes, Eastwood puts on a damn good sports game. I’m not familiar with the rules of rugby, but I was able to pick up on a few by the time the finale came for me to soak in. It’s a brutal sport, like football without pads but the same impact of player contact. The fact that the game hasn’t been shown in dozens of other movies before adds to the freshness of it, in addition to the hard-hitting direction. But nuzzled underneath this tale of attempted unification is a message of hope. While we know that South Africa will not be completely remedied of it’s racial tension, the filmmakers presents to us a moment in time where there was the hope of a shared culture, and that these moments can happen in the most unlikely of places (i.e. rugby). It may not be entirely successful at telling its story, but Invictus does at least give us this feeling that these two men (played exceptionally well by their actors) can hopefully accomplish what they set out to do, allowing us to cheer whenever they hit the next level.


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