Monday, 8 February 2010

Invictus (2009)

* * *

(Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2009)

is a film about South Africa's 1995 Rugby World Cup glory and its political significance, focusing on the leaderships of President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) and skipper, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). The historical moment is Mandela's recent release from Robben Island Prison, and South Africa's return to the global sports community. Mandela seeks, against the will of his supporters, to use, instead of banish, the green and gold Springboks - for years a symbol of white supremacy - as a means of uniting post-Apartheid South Africa.

On his first public outing at a test match against England, Mandela is confronted by a sea of apartheid flags and is nearly struck by a catapult of (ice cream?) - the closest the movie gets to violence.
Invictus is one of those bemusing films where its weird absence of suffering, its failure to deal with the real issues, is worse than meek: it is irresponsible. There are glimpses of the country's rugby-culture and how it is loathed by the majority of the population but these are contrived and seldom. The most painful scene is when Mandela's white and black security meet: the tension between, and the acccents of, the character-actors are never believable.

As a handsome, international captain, Matt Damon is closer to David Beckham than Francois Pienaar. His insipid speech making combined with the non-existence of any relationship with a teammate make for some uninspiring sports cinema. However his beefcake look and his team's visits to Robben Island and a township suggest a visually disciplined motion picture and paint a true portrait of the South Africa that people who have been will, or should, recognise. It is on Robben Island that Pienaar imagines (but not brutally enough) Mandela's struggle in his cell with the cinematographical support of Henley's poem,
Invictus, read on a voice over by Freeman and given to the captain for inspiration (in fact it was Roosevelt's speech, The Man in the Arena, that Mandela gave to Pienaar in 1995).

Moving or still, smiling or deep in contemplation, Morgan Freeman
is Nelson Mandela. Even if we turn our eyes away for just a syllable, it could be Nelson Mandela talking. Having mastered the wise and revered screen presence as a number of comparable personalities (Deep Impact, Gone Baby Gone, The Shawshank Redemption, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Bruce Almighty...), Freeman has nailed the part he was born to play, working a five-star performance in a three-star flick. The mutual respect between Mandela and Pienaar is well executed, as is Mandela's wit when it comes to afternoon tea, irony and self-deprecating humour.

If not the oppression, at least the diversity of South Africa's landscape is observed honestly by Eastwood. A third-world township is visited and uplifted briefly by celebrities, and elsewhere, the plush Pienaar household (notoriously racist, though this is largely muted by Eastwood) is attended to by a black servant. Eastwood removes his idealistic political show from the unresolved disharmony still prevalent in South Africa fifteen years on. Ironically, in a film that regularly takes us into the Springbok dressing room, Chester Williams, the one black player and cult hero in the squad, is even more of a caricature than he was in the original PR campaign; an opportunity for a fascinating character-development snubbed. It is particularly disheartening when Mandela, learning the names of each squad member, turns to his PA assistant and remarks that Chester is too easy to recognise: "This must change. It has to". Unfortunately, it hasn't.

Although the World Cup Final is dragged out (I remembered it as a territorial, scrappy affair) and although I knew what was going to happen when Joel Stransky set himself for the winning drop kick, my heart began to race at how much more than victory this meant to the brand new, rainbow nation. Outside the stadium, a black child listening to the radio-commentary with two white policemen is a nice touch, yet it is symptomatic of the way in which Eastwood sidesteps South Africa's cracked social fabric in pursuit of a cutesy and brief shot of pathos. Clint Eastwood is (of course) a fine director but with
Invictus he has taken an extraordinary, true and complex story and made an ordinary, misleading and straightforward film.

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