30
Dec
09

Movie Review: Invictus

Go rugby!

Starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Based on the book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation,” by John Carlin

1995. A man trying to keep a country united during change. A rugby team given the charge of going all the way to the World Cup. Adversity. Perseverance. And yet, there was something missing.

Story (and history for those not in the know): Nelson Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist who was released from prison after 27 years in 1990. He began campaigning for reconciliation, trying to achieve a balance between races. He ran for election and governed as President of South Africa from 1994-1999. To this day he offers his opinions on political topics and is a celebrated elder statesman.

The movie begins –roughly- with Mandela (Freeman) taking power. With blacks in South Africa able to vote alongside whites for the first time, Mandela has been chosen President. Several of the whites, fearing for themselves and/or their jobs, start to leave the Presidential office when Mandela has a meeting and tells them that if they want to leave they can go but if they want to stay and help, it would be a great service to their country.

Rugby is the national sport and the current team, the South African Springboks, leave something to be desired in terms of winning. Team Captain Francois Pienaar (Damon) has come under a lot of heat for not winning and the local community votes to change the team name, colors, etc. Mandela intervenes and persuades them to reverse the decision.

Mandela calls for a meeting with Pienaar and instills in him the idea of taking the Springboks all the way to the World Cup. With the whole country, if not the world, watching South Africa and its rugby team, will Mandela’s hopes pay off?

Director Clint Eastwood softens the line between politics and sports in tackling the subject matter. The movie is as much about a man fighting the effects of apartheid and unifying a racially torn nation as it is places hope in a team that blacks and whites don’t want to root for, but both sides need to. The country focuses on this one team which no one believes has a shot of going all the way.

What I just described sounds great on paper, even compelling, and the book may be great (I’ve not read it) but the movie seems to feel flat. Maybe it’s out sense of “film programming” in the way that we want our heroes, our teams, to overcome adversity in terms that we can relate to, or for them to go through the ups and downs as they reach the prize. Here the most confrontational anything gets is when Mandela’s bodyguards have white Presidential bodyguards that they have to accept and work with. Aside from stares and shrugs, that’s it. As for the Springboks it’s more about media scrutiny and the fact that they are given the task of winning for South Africa, which no one seems to have a big problem with; again, more short scenes but no one character feels drowned or over-burdened with the responsibility of answering the call.

And maybe Eastwood wasn’t going for that; maybe he just wanted to tell the simple, yet incredible, story of a team that brought a country together. He did just that but it didn’t feel incredible, just something that was going to happen anyway.

I also had problems with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. Both are iconic in their respective fields, entertainment and politics, but should one icon be played by another? I read that the only person Mandela saw as able to play him was Freeman and that’s the first person who signed-on to the movie but… it’s difficult to see Freeman as humble. He’s played cops/detectives, God, a Civil War soldier, etc. but I just had problems seeing past the actor as the being the public figure.

Lack of character development may have been the culprit. Pienaar, the team’s captain, comes from a well-to-do white South African family that has a live-in maid and has a beautiful girlfriend (Marguerite Wheatley). The only thing the guy has to do is show up and get his team into shape for the World Cup. No esteem issues, no drugs, no otherwise erroneous or law-breaking behavior or flaws; just rugby.

As for what the title has to do with anything: while in prison Mandela found a poem called “Invictus,” which was originally written by William Ernest Henley in 1875. Invictus means “unconquerable” in Latin. Briefly, I’ll post the last of the poem:

“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

Otherwise it’s a good movie. Not great but an interesting “snapshot” of a certain time and place.

My grade: B-

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