December 09, 2009


But, they'll never take our freedom...or our sporty jerseys

Grade: C +

Director: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes

The saying goes, “Soccer is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans; rugby is a game for hooligans played by gentlemen.”

The joke recounted in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, and it carries an extra sting because his story concerns rugby in South Africa. During the years of apartheid, athletes were also segregated, with whites excelling at rugby and blacks gravitating to soccer.

This racial divide informs the film’s sublime opening scene. On a lush green field is a team of sporty white South African boys practicing rugby, while directly across a road, separated by a chicken-wire fence, is a group of impoverished black youngsters playing a pickup game of soccer on a bare dirt patch. The year is 1990, and down the highway travels a caravan carrying a newly freed Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), released after 27 years as a political prisoner. The blacks gather fence-line and chant “Mandela, Mandela,” while the white rugby coach instructs his players to remember the occasion as the day South Africa went to the dogs.

A whirlwind montage then takes us through Mandela’s improbable election as South Africa’s president in 1994, and the question of whether he can walk the thin tightrope separating anxious and/or racist Afrikaners fearful of a new enfranchised black majority from blacks calling for retribution against their apartheid-era white oppressors.

One vestige of white-rule was the popular, famously segregated South African rugby national team, nicknamed the Springboks. Exhibiting Solomon-esque wisdom, Mandela eschews calls for wholesale reform to the team – including a new name and colors – by recognizing that such an act would needlessly alienate an already anxious white minority that distrusted their new government but still controlled many of its government institutions. Newspaper headlines ask, “He can win an election, but can he lead a country?” “It’s a legitimate question,” confesses Mandela.

Even as host country, South Africa was a long shot to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Their unifying march through the tournament forms the backdrop for Invictus, adapted from author John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation. The film’s title is borrowed from William Ernest Henley’s famous short poem, which inspired Mandela during his years in prison. Likewise, Mandela extends the poem’s concluding stanza – “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” – to similarly motivate the Springboks’ politically ambivalent captain, Francois Pienaar (a suitable Matt Damon), into believing their team could not only win the Cup but unite a new “rainbow nation” in the process.

Terms often used to describe Eastwood’s directorial style – “traditional,” “classical,” “understated” – are code words that often euphemize basic, uncreative, and stale filmmaking., Eastwood’s success has more to do with his industry heft and ear for a good yarn, including even disappointments like his duel World War II epics, Mystic River, Changeling, and others. Invictus is no exception. Still, during the film’s first half, Eastwood’s unobtrusive method actually complements the storyline. The straightforward presentation of the principal narrative leaves room to introduce several potentially interesting subplots, involving Mandela’s estrangement from his wife and daughter, tension within his mixed-race security detail, and dismay among many Mandela staffers over the president’s preoccupation with the rugby team’s seemingly inconsequential fate.

But, like a team lacking proper conditioning, Invictus runs out of steam midway through. Any further character development or meaningful exploration of racial, political, or cultural complexities fall by the wayside in lieu of a poorly staged, standard sports-movie finale. Yes, the central story is based on real-life events. But, the tournament itself forms the virtual entirety of the film’s second half, notwithstanding isolated detours like the team’s affecting visit to Mandela’s former cell on Robben Island.

Indeed, the climactic match against formidable New Zealand (nicknamed the “All-Blacks,” ironically) comprises nearly the final 20 minutes of the film. Eastwood’s staging consists of a merry-go-round of recreated game-play and incessant reaction shots of five or six groups watching/listening to the game across Pretoria – including Mandela, who is reduced to just another cheering fan. When Eastwood decides to ramp up the tension, his simplistic solution is to reduce everything to slow motion, including ticking clocks and those repetitive crowd reactions.

Eastwood’s main mistake, however, is that he ceases presenting Mandela’s use of the Springboks as a symbol for racial reconciliation and instead myopically holds up their symbiotic relationship as the principal instrument toward accomplishing that end. By film’s end, white cops are hoisting black youngsters atop their shoulders, rich Afrikaner housewives are hugging their black maids, and white rugby hooligans are embracing former black rebels.

All’s well that ends well, Invictus would have us believe. Still, it’s telling that this year’s most instructive film about crime, poverty, and racial prejudice set in South Africa is District 9, not this well-intentioned but inert Oscar bait.

Neil Morris

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