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Non-Review Review: Invictus

I have to admit being quite impressed with Invictus. One of the benefits of living in Europe, but also one of the burdens, is that we typically have a week or two to surf the reviews of any film about to open, as it has typically been previewed (and released) in America long before it arrives on our humble shores. On one hand, this allows us to make carefully considered film choices, but it also means that our optimism for an upcoming release can be bashed against the rocks of poor critical acclaim. Invictus didn’t secure a Best Picture nomination and it didn’t exactly blow the socks off reviewers. I know that a reviewer should go in to a darkened cinema leaving all expectations and preconceptions aside, but unfortunately this is the real world. Invictus isn’t a cinematic classic, nor the highpoint of anyone’s filmography, but it is a solidly constructed sports and politics epic with a superb leading performance and a skilled hand behind the camera.

Nelson Mandela - Nobel laureate, South African President, Springboks manager...

I’ve always been somewhat cautious when approaching the “sports movie” subgenre. It’s very tough to capture the spontaneous excitement of a live game on celluloid. Here Clint Eastwood manages a pretty decent job, drawing most of the films energy not so much from the antics on the pitch, but the reaction of the crowds in the stands. The sound design for these sequences is stunningly effective, as the cinema audience feels the cheers and even the hush wash over them.

It’s also fun to see Eastwood construct the central metaphor – a key part of any sports movie – not in spoken terms, but in purely visual terms. Oliver Stone elevated his own sports epic, Any Given Sunday, through the iconic “life is a game of inches” speech at half-time, offering American football as a metaphor for life. Eastwood doesn’t try anything so overt. Instead his metaphor is visual, represented by the manner in which the film depicts the Springboks’ tactics against the All Blacks: the opposition player is two big to spot single-handed, so the whole team must swarm around him to bring him down. Can you say “we’re all in this together”?

There is a lot which holds the movie back from being an out-and-out classic. Even ignoring the fact that we know the outcome (a difficulty for any historical film to overcome), there is a hint of sentimentallity behind it which seems a little heavyhanded. At one point, as Mandela flies to meet the team, a vocal track (seemingly titled Colourblind) plays over the sequence. An instrumental track would have seemed a little gratuitous, but the vocals push the scenes comfortably into cheesy territory. The final sequence during the match also goes a little too far in the “rugby has saved the country” direction. For example, Eastwood seems to suggest that – for the game time – the slums and shantytowns which still scar the landscape today are empty. There’s a sacchrine image of white police officers and a black child bonding over the radio commentary on the game. The movie successfully captures a huge moment of national pride on screen (as any Irish person around for Italia ’90 will attest, sports are a huge unifying factor), but it doesn’t really deal with the unfortunate historical truth that this was but one step on the long road to a truly harmonious South Africa (arguable one yet to exist).

On the other hand, there’s quite a clever bit of subtext going on here. There’s more than a slight hint of Obama examination bubbling just beneath the surface. “He can win an election, but can he run a country?” is a familiar question. “This country’s changed,” Pienaar suggests to his team mates, “we need to change as well.” There’s the notion of unreasonable expectation in a leader ending up somewhat smothered by the reality of dull and long trade negotiations and cabinet meetings. In fairness, Eastwood concedes that building a new future is a long and slow process that takes place in meeting rooms and long policy discussions, but the public need something more, something tangeable – what might be cynically dismissed as “bread and circuses”. Does this movie represent an examination of the Obama phenomenon by one of America’s greatest living directors? Maybe, but there’s certainly food for thought here.

Then again, that’s probably beside the point. The real charm of the movie is it’s leading man. Morgan Freeman is easily one of the best actors of his generation. However, I don’t think I’m being unfair if I observe that he hasn’t quite delivered a performance which demonstrates his potential in quite some time. Here, he seems at home. Much like Frank Langella bears little resemblance to Nixon for his turn in Frost/Nixon, Freeman actually looks very little like Mandela, but – like Langella – you forget that within a few minutes. He moves like Mandela, he adopts the mannerisms of the character and he speaks like Mandela. The South African accent is apparently quite difficult to master, but both leads do it justice. In fact, the only moments that the audience becomes aware of the fact that they are watching Freeman is when he drops the accent to narrate the titular poem, perhaps subconsciously regressing to “Morgan Freeman narrates” mode. In general, his performance is the core of the film, and it’s a joy to watch him in a role which offers him a challenge. Admittedly I’m not so sure that Matt Damon deserved an Oscar nomination for essentially putting his own weight on in muscle, but he is certainly effective as the rugby captain.

In fairness to Damon, the other real costar of the film is Eastwood’s direction. I think there’s a case to be made for Eastwood as easily one of the greatest living American directors. He manages to steer clear of excessive sentimentally for most of the film – most notably a sequence where the advancing team take a trip to Mandela’s cell on Robin Island. It works surprisingly effectively. Eastwood even finds a way to make the mandatory exposition scenes – because film makers can’t expect film nuts to know the rules of rugby, obviously – somewhat entertaining, as Mandela mutters dismissively, “how wonderful”. Eastwood seems to recognise that it’s very hard to humanise a character as iconic as Mandela, but – to his credit – he keeps some interesting notions playing in background – like those of Mandela’s fractured family life, for example. None are ever addressed directly, but they are certainly present.

Invictus isn’t a masterpiece, by any stretch, but it is a very good film and one well worthy of your time, if you’re interested in Mandela or history or Freeman or Eastwood’s filmographies.

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