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Monday, May 31, 2010

Invictus (2009)

* * *

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is a very important movie. You can tell because it announces itself as such at every turn. It’s the kind of film that makes for an excellent trailer but in its long form sinks under the weightiness of its own material. It's not a bad movie but it doesn't really measure up to its own pretenses.

Starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, Invictus follows the first year of his career as President of South Africa. With apartheid still an all too recent memory and the makeup of South Africa society in flux, tensions between black and white South Africans is particularly high. In his own words, Mandela must find a way to balance "black aspirations with white fears" and create one unified nation. With the country set to host the World Rugby Cup the following year, Mandela sets about using South Africa's rugby team, the Springboks, to bring the people of the nation together in the pursuit of a common goal. This is no easy feat as black South Africans are accustomed to rooting for anyone but the Springboks, whose existence is one of many reminders of the old, oppressive system.

Mandela enlists the help of Springboks' Captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to make the team more accessible to those who aren't currently fans. Though he faces a lot of resistance from his teammates, who feel that they have enough work to do just to get to the championship and don't have the time or energy to devote to reaching out to the community, Pienaar displays the same persistance as Mandela and is able to successfully push his agenda. Though the Springboks have been underperforming and few people think they have a legitimate shot at the finals, the team exceeds expectations to face off against New Zealand for the cup.

The big draw for this film is Freeman as Mandela, a role he seems to have been born to play. It's a good performance and the story of a black politician trying to lead a country that has experienced centries of conflict and tension between blacks and whites is, of course, topical. That being said, however, Mandela emerges as one of the least interesting characters, in part because he's portrayed as being so saintly. There is a cursory attempt to display Mandela as perhaps less than perfect in a few scenes which show or comment on his fractured family relationships, but all in all the only thing that keeps Mandela from being a cardboard good guy is Freeman's performance. Similarly, the only thing that breathes any life into Pienaar is Damon's performance. Neither character is really allowed to have much in the way of dimension.

More interesting to me, particularly in light of what the film wants to achieve, is the subplot involving Mandela's security team. The team is made up of both ANC activists and the Afrikaner cops who once would have made their lives hell. The two factions distrust each other and there is a lot of simmering tension between them, but because Mandela is determined to work with members of the old order to create a new and more just system, they have to find a way to work together. The subplot unfolds gradually and is used as a means of demonstrating the relieving of tensions within the rest of the nation, and it works because the film doesn't approach it with a heavy hand. I actually think the subplot is the strongest part of the story, whereas the sports aspect is the weakest.

The story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup is, of course, based on real events but that doesn't make the film less predictable. Much of it unfolds according to the dictates of sports film conventions and the action on the field is put together in a way that seems muddled. If you go into this not knowing much about rugby, you're unlikely to come away from it with a better understanding of the game. It's a disappointing aspect of the film given how skilled Eastwood is as a director, but overall Invictus is a perfectly decent film. It's not groundbreaking in any way, but it's worth a look.

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