Eugene Weekly : Movies : 12.17.09


Chasing rainbows with the populist director
by Jason Blair

INVICTUS: Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Anthony Peckham, based on the book by John Carlin. Cinematography, Tom Stern. Music, Michael Stevens and Kyle Eastwood. Starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Warner Brothers, 2009. PG-13. 132 minutes.

While Invictus isn’t the first film to explore apartheid against the backdrop of rugby — I’m thinking of A Dry White Season and to a lesser extent, Cry Freedom — it’s certainly the first to use rugby as a means of avoiding a discussion of apartheid. In Invictus, director Clint Eastwood presents the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, an event hosted and won by South Africa after Nelson Mandela, then the newly elected president, famously inspired his countrymen to victory. Given the long odds facing the national team (nicknamed the Springboks) entering the tourney, from their dismal record to their lack of support among the black majority, Invictus should be the story of a nation united, of forgiveness despite great and terrible sins. 

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus

Instead, little if any conflict is felt in this overly cleansed and timid version of John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy. Eastwood, who during his post-Mystic River run is more about manners than mayhem, sets about Invictus to provide answers, not raise questions, resulting in a production with all the complexity of a high school dress rehearsal.

Early in the film, Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) attends a Springboks match against England. During the game, the black crowd cheers for the opponent. Meanwhile, in a nearby slum, a poor black boy rejects the gift of a Springboks jersey, his face stricken with horror. Says the black woman to the white woman standing nearby, “If he wears it, the others will beat him up,” at which the white woman’s face balls up in confusion. Why the surprise? Who are these women? Who is the boy? This sort of stagey, intrusive, parable-like incident resounds throughout Invictus, in which we’re constantly being instructed how to feel without actually being made to feel anything. When Mandela invites the Springboks’ captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to tea, it’s an outstretched hand to Afrikaner culture; thereafter, Pienaar’s white family is used as a sort of barometer for Mandela’s progress. But theirs is a family without real relationships. They’re merely people who say things to help us keep score. What does Francois really think about Mandela, let alone his plan to win the World Cup? Is Francois’ wife (or is that his girlfriend?) someone with actual needs and desires? Does she even have a name? What’s more, where is Winnie Mandela, or the ANC movement who secured Mandela’s release? Why is Mandela’s daughter so angry with him? Nothing calamitous is permitted in Eastwood’s vision of South Africa — in real life, a grief-stricken corner of the planet — making Invictus the cinematic equivalent of Disneyland. 

Invictus is overly calculated in almost every conceivable way. Need a unifying moment? Enter the song “Colorblind.” It’s a film crafted to impress — how self-consciously obscure is the title Invictus, which references a Victorian poem? — yet it contains very little of aesthetic value. If it is a failure, it is largely a failure of material. Eastwood may have given into the screenplay’s siren songs of dignity and decorum, of virtue and grace without struggle, but Freeman certainly did not. Despite having to deliver (and receive) numerous speeches large and small, public and private, all of which can be summarized by “Let me tell you why this moment matters,” Freeman manages to inhabit Mandela physically as well as emotionally. It’s a completely natural and convincing performance. Otherwise, Invictus is distant and unsatisfying, like studying a painting from the far side of a room. It is a film with a triumphalist spirit that is anything but a triumph. 




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