Eastwood's 'Invictus' Fumbles
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
In 1995, as South Africa was trying to heal the gaping, fresh wounds of the apartheid era, President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) blended a strong sense of symbolism and a firm grasp of realpolitik, and did what he could to encourage the Springboks rugby team to win the World Cup. The Springboks were loved by South Africa's whites, but black South Africans would routinely root for whatever team was opposing them. But a sports arena divided, much less a country, cannot stand. And so Mandela reached out to team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), exhorting the Springboks to play, and win and to be a team for all of South Africa, meanwhile giving whites assurance that not every one of their cultural traditions would be swept away and encouraging blacks to think of the Springboks as a team, and a tradition, in which they could partake.
This is an amazing story, to be sure. But does that make it a good film? Let's put aside the film's classic case of "Hollywood liberalism" -- celebrating past victories rather than looking at current challenges, patting itself on the back rather than straining something doing real work. For "Invictus" has a bigger problem: It's directed by Clint Eastwood. Critics and awards groups knock themselves out celebrating Eastwood -- he's as close to a secular saint as American film making has -- but I am not among their number. And every flaw Eastwood has (his reliance on music and narration to tell you how to feel, his lack of facility with action, his gumdrop heart pumping syrup beneath his Mount Rushmore exterior) is in play in "Invictus."
Taking its title from the Victorian poem Mandela used as his inspiration often during his 27 years of captivity, "Invictus" combines the down-and-dirty drama of the realities of modern politics and the rousing cheers of the "big game" sports subgenre, in the hopes they'll amplify each other. Screenwriter Anthony Peckham, adapting John Carlin's book, actually makes one interesting decision: showing us much of the story through the eyes of Mandela's security detail, led by actor Tony Kgoroge, worried about threats to the new president even as it's being integrated and supplemented with white special branch police who used to protect the leaders and enforce the laws of the apartheid era.
But then we build up to the final game, and Eastwood's shooting style doesn't convey the back-and-forth of the games, or their intrinsic rules and principles, especially well. We get almost no sense of the mechanics of rugby, and the final game is drenched in slow-mo until it feels like it lasts almost as long as Mandela's 27 years in prison. Contrasting the movie's rugby scenes with, for example, the cleanly communicated hockey action in "Miracle" (another politically charged big-game film) is an object lesson in how nobility of purpose is no substitute for narrative clarity.
Freeman's performance is fine, and, considering how well it hits the sentimental sweet spot of the Academy's older voters, almost guaranteed the Oscar. At one point, one of Mandela's bodyguards notes, "He's not a saint, he's a man, with a man's problems," and it would have been interesting if the script had actually explored that idea instead of walking away from it. Damon's beefy, boyish look is the most interesting thing he's asked to bring to the movie; Pienaar is a bit of a cipher otherwise.
Again, the biggest problem here is Eastwood, overdirecting so that the point of every scene is driven home with a blunt, heavy hand. There's a scene in which Pienaar, touring the prison where Mandela was held for years, actually sees a ghostly Mandela in his cell, as the soundtrack soars and Freeman's voice intones the words of Henley's "Invictus." It's not as grotesque as the manipulations of the maudlin, phony "Million Dollar Baby," but it's still clumsy and cloying at the same time. (Industry insiders and critics always note that Eastwood finishes his movies on time and under budget, overlooking that they often simply aren't any good. How often do you walk into the video store or the theater saying, "Boy, I want to see something that was made on time and under budget!"?)
"Invictus" is a great example of what film critic Manny Farber called white elephant art: massive, immobile, solid, made with no purpose other than to loom large and be worshipped. When Pienaar gets invited to Mandela's office for tea and a talk, their family housekeeper says to Francois, "You must tell [Mandela] that the bus service is very bad, and very expensive." But we don't see him ask that, and we never hear another line from her. "Invictus" is only interested in South Africa and the challenges of reconciliation as a background setting and inspiring theme, not as a real place or a real problem; it's a thin, hollow shell designed expressly to be coated in Oscar gold.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.