Saturday, December 12, 2009
There is a great man at the center of Clint Eastwood's Invictus, but he's far removed from the reluctant killer of Unforgiven or the racist widower of Gran Torino. Invictus isn't a movie about violence in the sense that Eastwood's films often are, but rather a movie about a country inflicting violence on itself. The great man who must heal a nation's wounds is of course Nelson Mandela, played with sly calculation and a dry wit by Eastwood's frequent collaborator Morgan Freeman. Adapted by Anthony Peckham from John Carlin's book, Invictus is the story of Mandela's shepherding of the South African rugby team to an improbable win in the 1995 World Cup. Mandela views rugby as chance for the nation's distrustful black and white halves to come together, and that's just one of the points upon which Invictus touches lightly before moving on to something else. An opening scene shows white children playing rugby across the road from black children playing soccer on the day Mandela is released from prison. It's implied at several points that many blacks aren't particularly interested in rugby and in some cases (like a member of Mandela's security detail) they don't even understand the rules. There's one scene in which the team conducts a rugby clinic in the townships, but that takes place before the World Cup matches start. Once the team starts winning though it doesn't matter, since the South African population is reduced to a cheering throng.
Mandela is given several chances to use the power of the presidency to score points against the whites and revenge his decades of imprisonment, but each time he eschews personal satisfaction in favor of nationhood and selflessness. He could summarily dismiss everyone in the President's office left over from the last administration but offers them all a chance to stay instead. (We never learn how many accept the offer) Mandela quashes a move to change the national rugby team's name and colors when the team is performing poorly, but at least gets to explain himself. Changing the colors would alienate too may distrustful older whites whom Mandela knows he'll need to put at their ease if his administration is to survive. The divisions within the country are mirrored too neatly in the initial distrust between Mandela's white and black bodyguards. While his attitudes make sense on a political level, there's little drama in watching a man always make the smart and upright choice. The tumultuous end of Mandela's marriage to Winnie Madikizela isn't mentioned; we're told only that the couple is estranged and that Mandela's children rarely visit. Eastwood also glosses over repuation of Mandela's political party, the African National Congress, for violence and filling its coffers through corrupt practices. Even granting Mandela's personal power, South African politics can't have been this tidy.
The other major character in Invictus is Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of a rugby team on the brink of becoming a national joke. Damon is believably dogged in the role; he's far from the biggest physically on the team but exudes an authority which his teammates respect. How does the team stun the world? We're never told exactly but it's suggested that the Springboks (as the team is known) simply outwork everyone else. I didn't feel coming out of Invictus that I'd learned anything about the strategy or sucessful execution of the game of rugby, and Eastwood badly mishandles the final game versus New Zealand. The final moments are attenuated almost to the point of absurdity thanks to liberal use of slow-motion. Clint Eastwood has one thing on his mind in Invictus: to tell the story of how Mandela and the rugby team united their country through hard work. Mandela refers to his politcization of rugby as a "human calculation," and Invictus should have depicted more of its subjects calculation (and darker moments) in telling its admittedly remarkable story.