Friday, December 11, 2009

Invictus (2009)

The ads around New York City have already declared Clint Eastwood's Invictus "genuinely inspiring" with "a soul-stirring story." I do not disagree, but don't rush out to the theater just yet. Sure, Invictus is inspirational. But that's not enough. Given the stakes, the improbable outcome, and the excessive use of swelling string music, who wouldn't be inspired by this story? Well, yeah, racists, of course. But other than that?

Obviously, this is a well-intentioned film. It teaches valuable lessons about important issues. But the way in which it goes it about teaching them is so tedious. It's more like a very dry history lesson from a professor who's not particularly invested in the material. Even as your soul will be stirred your brain will be bored by this tale of newly elected President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and his brilliant use of the South Africa rugby team, a group previously associated with Afrikaner culture and the trauma of apartheid, to unite his divided nation. The major fault in the film lies with the characters. Mandela and the captain of the South Africa rugby team Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) are great men in real life but they're not great movie characters, at least not as conceived by screenwriter Anthony Peckham, who treats them as pure forces of good with little complexity or shading. Mandela is often viewed from the perspective of his bodyguards, who whisper about the enormous personal and professional challenges he's up against. "He's not a saint," one says. "He's just a man with a man's problems." Unfortunately, the Mandela of Invictus essentially is a saint; his family life is given almost no mention, and even the health problems it shows him encountering are completely glossed over (in one scene Mandela is ordered to undergo a period of bed rest after a serious collapse. In the next, he's back at work as if the incident never happened). Pienaar is equally frustrating. His rugby team is the engine that drives a change of perspective for an entire nation, but his own thoughts on the issues he's combating are left largely unsaid. What was his life like during apartheid? What were his feelings before he met Mandela? Who knows. All we really know about the man is what little we can glean from the many times he stands in front of windows and stares soulfully out into the distance.

The movie features a few of the themes Eastwood likes to explore, particularly the way in which men struggle to move beyond the sins of their dark pasts, but it's also an odd fit for the director in some ways. He's never been one for sports movies before, either behind or in front of the camera, and he doesn't have a good handle on the rugby scenes, which are both repetitive and unclear (if you don't know the rules of rugby before the film, don't expect to understand them afterwards either). He's obviously far more interested in the inner-workings of a different team, that of Mandela's personal security detail, a group comprised of blacks and Afrikaners. Eastwood framers their initial struggles and eventual cohesion into a single police force as a microcosm of the "rainbow nation" Mandela creates in South Africa. By repeatedly cutting back and forth between Mandela and his security and Pienaar and his rugby players, Invictus resembles a mash-up of two superior films, Remember the Titans and In the Line of Fire, which starred Eastwood as an American Secret Service agent.

I don't doubt that if you see the film you will feel a chill down your spine when Mandela takes the field before the World Cup of Rugby wearing the uniform that had for so long stood for everything he fought against. I felt it too. But I also felt like that moment was unearned, supported as it was, by the sweeping music and CGI crane shots of people cheering and chanting and waving the new South African flag. It didn't represent the way the rest of the film, in true biopic fashion, refuses to dig beneath the surface of its story or characters. The story is inspirational. The film is uninspired.



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