Saturday, June 21, 2014

Invictus (2009)

Director: Clint Eastwood                                 Writer: Anthony Peckham
Film Score: Kyle Eastwood                             Cinematography: Tom Stern
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Adjoa Andoh and Tony Kgoroge

Invictus seems a rather strange project for Clint Eastwood, a combination biopic of the presidency of Nelson Mandela with the comeback of the South African rugby team in the 1995 World Cup. The plot is based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin and centers on the transition from the white government of de Klerk to the Mandela led government after his election in 1990. At the same time the national rugby team, the Springboks, were suffering a bad season and many in the new government wanted to abolish the team and start from scratch, as the old team was primarily supported by white Afrikaners and to many blacks still represented apartheid. Morgan Freeman was the natural choice to play Mandela and does a pretty good job, though he struggles with the accent. Why Matt Damon was selected is not quite as clear. He was much smaller than most rugby players and looks odd on the field with the much bigger players. But he was a box-office name and earned himself an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Freeman was also nominated, for best actor, but neither won.

The film begins with the election of Morgan Freeman as Mandela and the expectation by most whites that he would clean house and there would be no room for them anymore. And many blacks, even those serving the new president, were of a mind to do exactly that. But Mandela was looking beyond the immediate future to the long-term success of the country. And to do that he would be dependent on whites in many areas including law enforcement and the economy. Meanwhile Francois Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, is the captain of the national rugby team and his father tells them that everything is going to change for the worse. To top things off, the team is having a horrible year and sportscasters are calling them a national embarrassment. When a vote comes by the ruling party to do away with the rugby team, Mandela intercedes. He does not want to alienate all whites, and he calculates that keeping the team may be just the thing to placate them. But how he gets the blacks in his country, who hate the whites, to get behind the rugby team is every bit as ingenious.

In terms of the history of the period, the film is certainly an important one. The mix of sports and politics is unexpected, and something unknown to most Americans except during the Olympics. And in that way the ending of the film does resemble Miracle, especially with the All Black team from New Zealand mirroring the dominance of the Russians in the Olympic ice hockey film. In terms of drama, however, Invictus suffers. And it’s not just that we know how the film is going to turn out; Miracle has that too. There’s an over-earnestness to the production that seems to drag it down, as though everyone knew just how “meaningful” the film was as they were making it, and couldn’t bear to see it fail. But they needn’t have worried, as it’s a very popular film. Adjoa Andoh as Mandela’s chief of staff, gives a powerful performance. And in a subplot to the film, Tony Kgoroge, Mandela’s chief of security who must integrate former white bodyguards into his staff, is equally good. The music, by Eastwood’s son Kyle, is another major flaw in the film as it has been ever since the two Eastwoods began writing film scores, but that’s a negative side of Eastwood’s new aesthetic that we’ll just have to deal with. Invictus isn’t a particularly good film, but it is a valuable one, an important story that is worth experiencing.

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