Friday, December 11, 2009

Invictus (***)

Produced and Directed by Clint Eastwood


There are some people who, just by name alone, conjure up the thought: "That guy's life would make a terrific money." Even if you don't know anything about them as a person, just their name conjures up such an aura that creates visions of dramatic (or more precisely, cinematic) proportions. Jim Morrison, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Hitler are just a few of those names--some of them have had their own movie, some have not. Nelson Mandela is one of those people. Clint Eastwood's film Invictus is a story about Mandella, but not necessarily the kind you would expect.

The film begins as Mandella (Morgan Freeman) has begun his service as the newly elected president of South Africa, shortly after Apartheid. It is a moment of great cheer for most of the country's population, but for some of the more prejudiced (or white) population, Mandella is seen as a threat, sure to overrun the country with angry zealots looking to act out their vengeance. Mandella has no interest in that, though, and is only interested in heading a more peaceful nation. He insists that the white employees of the previous administration stay, and even hires white bodyguards. This raises a lot of eyebrows even from his closest followers.

As Mandella rises as a politician, the country's national rugby team is failing quickly. Captained by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the team is shackled by low moral, short on motivation, and while becoming drenched in numerous losses, they are heckled endlessly by public television analysts. Simply stated, they are an international laughing stock. Even when trying to stay level-headed, Pienaar has become undeniably frustrated with the team's mediocrity. As Mandella notices the team's downfall, he decides to have tea with Pienaar and asks him a simple favor: try to have the team win the 1995 World Cup.

It seems like an unfathomably tall order, and one Pienaar finds hard to take seriously. The team begins a hellish workout regiment in order to train. Despite trying to lead an apartheid-torn country, Mandella always finds the time to check in on the team from time to time. With Mandella's endorsement giving them a new-found confidence, the team starts to win. As the all-white team begins to climb it's way into the World Cup standings, the country begins to band together behind their scrappy, imperfect team. Known as the 'Springboks' by most black South Africans, the whole country becomes enraptured with this team, no matter the color.

I'm an American sports fan, which means I know absolutely nothing about Rugby. It seems a bit haphazard and dangerous, with men piling on top of each other and tackling with ferociousness. Kind of like American football, without the helmets and shoulder pads. That said, Invictus is still one of the greatest sport films I've ever seen. I find most sports movies callow and unmotivated. For the most part, they know that their sport will have its own audience, and fall back on sports cliche to tell the story. Invictus showcases sports in an enlightening way, showing that it is not the sporting event itself that is meaningful, but what that event does for the people who are watching.

It would have been easy to make a film about Mandella's thirty-year imprisonment and think that would have been enough to properly display Mandella's story. Instead, Eastwood takes a different view. He shows Mandella as a leader, someone whose impeccable intelligence lent itself appropriately toward diplomacy. Rounding out his spectacular decade as a filmmaker (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino)*, Eastwood has made what is probably his most generalized, populist film. Even though Mandella is lionized to an impossible level (a subplot detailing his estranged family does little to sway our sympathy), we still don't mind watching Mandella in this story, because we're not forced to worship him.

It's certain that Morgan Freeman looks a lot like Nelson Mandella in this film, but I'll admit that my ignorance on the man makes it nearly impossible for me to judge how well he nails the political icon. Freeman brings as much delicacy and cadence to this role as he does to all his roles, and its obvious that Freeman sees this as the role of a lifetime. As the Springboks' captain, Damon does a good job of showing South Africa's swaying allegiances. Raised by prejudiced white parents, Peinaar had to take risks believing in his new leader, and Damon manifests those conflicting emotions well.

I'm glad that Eastwood decided to tell this story, and not something more obvious. It's a real sports movie, and by that I mean it really tells a sports story, and not a movie about a bunch people playing that sport. Maybe that's why I was able to forgive it's imminent predictability. Nothing will surprise you, and some of the dialogue screams of "Please put me in the trailer! I can sell the hell out of this movie!" Just watching the trailer would cause film producers to hide all of their Oscars, though I don't how much of a chance it has now. You'll feel god walking out of this film, and if you don't know any better, you'll probably be inspired as well.

*Did I just conveniently skip over Blood Work and Space Cowboys when talking about Clint's 2000's filmography? Yes, I did...

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