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Clint Eastwood’s ‘Invictus’ (1st review)BY: Robert Zaller 12.19.2009
Like the recent Precious, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is a feel-good film about race that asks for a willing suspension of disbelief. Morgan Freeman is worthily dull as Nelson Mandela, but he’ll probably win an Oscar anyway. Eastwood owes us more, though.
Invictus. A film directed by Clint Eastwood. At area theaters.
Win one for Mandela?ROBERT ZALLER
One thing about Clint Eastwood: He’s rarely predictable these days. After a career built on playing stoic cowboys and flawed cops, he’s given us, in somewhat bewildering succession, a film about Boston’s mean streets, another about a beat-up fight trainer, and not one but two about the battle for Iwo Jima. Eastwood’s latest, following last year’s car-detail Gran Torino, takes us to South Africa for a rugby match.
Invictus (the title, from W. E. Henley’s Victorian-era poem, means “unconquered”) has actually been long in the works. The story revolves around Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks, who improbably captured the World Cup in 1995 after nearly being dismantled by Mandela’s newly victorious African National Congress Party. It was Mandela himself, in the film’s telling, who intervened single-handedly to save the team, an icon of white supremacy loathed by black South Africans, and who motivated it to victory.
This is obviously the stuff of Hollywood, and Morgan Freeman had been tipped for the starring role by Mandela himself. It’s also, in our Age of Obama, the second film in several weeks to put an upbeat spin on race relations, following the phenomenal success (financial, not artistic) of Precious. As such, Invictus comes a bit too late, for Obama, having already alienated the left and disappointed his own black constituency, is very much a tarnished angel these days. His Nobel Prize (for warmongering?) has only gotten him deeper in trouble, and even the sainted Mandela— whose own halo has inevitably worn a bit threadbare— is unlikely to rescue him.
A stroke of political genius
Mandela is, of course, an authentic hero. He could easily have led South Africa down the ruinous path of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, but instead pursued a vision— partly pragmatic, but also deeply humane— of racial reconciliation. Letting his party chiefs bring down the Springboks would have been, as he understood, a gratuitous poke in the eye to South African whites who controlled most of the country’s wealth and staffed its senior governmental and professional positions. Turning the team into a symbol of national unity, albeit briefly, was a stroke of political genius.
All stories foreshorten reality. Nelson Mandela was busy on a wide variety of fronts in the first year of his presidency— a point the film makes obliquely— and the fate of the Springboks was far from his principal concern. Mandela himself was hardly a fan, since with his fellow political prisoners on Robben Island he ostentatiously rooted against the home team whenever it played as a means of asserting identity and irritating the white warders.
But he was shrewd enough to perceive that sports enthusiasm can bridge the deepest public divisions, and that bringing his new country together, even for a moment, could be an important symbolic milestone. That’s about all heroes can do, anyway.
Headlocks and body crunches
Eastwood tells his story straightforwardly. Once the initial opposition in the African National Congress had been overcome— the script reduces it to a single bold intervention— there is little tension in the plot, since we all know that the Springboks are going to win their cup, and South Africa will enjoy its feel-good moment. It doesn’t help that the film’s two hours and 20 minutes take a half-hour too long for the material; when Eastwood is in his epic mode, he rarely minds the clock.
One soon begins to note the repetitive shots, and to weary of the pounding and pummeling of the rugby sequences. William James called sport the moral equivalent of war, but after enough headlocks, body crunches and car crash sound effects, one begins to wonder whether rugby doesn’t give war a bad name.
There’s a point here— that only a sport as violent as this could produce a cathartic effect in a country as divided as South Africa— but also a rather less convincing subtext. The Springboks’ brutal game and the punishing regimen that lies behind it contrast with Mandela’s evident frailty (one scene shows him collapsed and unconscious in his driveway), and the film suggests a win-one-for-the-Gipper mentality that equates victory on the field with apotheosis for the leader. This obviously overstates the actual case, and introduces an uncomfortably fascistic undertone.
Damon’s good sergeant
The link between team and leader is Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the Springbok captain, whom Mandela shrewdly cultivates. Damon, in a focused but understated performance, gives the film what verisimilitude it has. Touched by Mandela’s stardust, he nonetheless remains a jock, intent on his job and his mates: a good sergeant who doesn’t overthink his role on the battlefield.
Morgan Freeman’s Mandela is carefully pondered and likewise understated, but cautious and ultimately wooden; we get little sense of the tough revolutionary under the benign statesman. It’s a disappointment, but Freeman has often seemed most at home in second banana roles, and he simply fails to step up to the plate in an Oscar-greased vehicle meant to serve as the role of a lifetime.
But in the real world…
In the end, though, what’s wrong with Precious is also what rings false about Invictus. Neither film pulls any punches in its setup. The abuse we see visited on Precious is realistic and raw, and the racial animosity of post-apartheid South Africa is palpable enough in Invictus. At the end of Precious, though, what we’re asked to accept is a self-liberated 16-year-old girl with HIV who can care for two small children; and what Invictus wants us to believe in is a country set free from its past by a wise and charismatic leader.
In the real world, though, Precious is going to wind up as a statistic, and post-Mandela South Africa— led first by a man who thought AIDS could be cured by herbal remedies and now by an accused rapist and racketeer whose presidential campaign song was “Bring Me My Machine Gun”— seethes with poverty and despair.
Eastwood has given us several films of moral complexity over the past two decades, rare beacons in a world where Hollywood’s biggest stars earn a payday by doing voice-overs for animated cartoons. In Invictus he sells himself, and us, short.♦
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