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Invictus (2009) ***

May 18, 2010

written by: Anthony Peckham (from a novel by John Carlin)

produced by: Robert Lorenz, Mace Neufeld, Lori McCreary & Clint Eastwood

directed by: Clint Eastwood

rated (PG-13 for brief strong language)

134 min.

U.S. release date: December 11, 2009

DVD & Blu-ray release date: May 18, 2010

By now, when you sit down to watch a film directed by Clint Eastwood, you know what to expect. His films guarantee a quiet and purposeful restrain guided by an efficient and assured hand. Come to think of it, that’s not too far off from the persona embodied by the legend himself.  It’s easy to marvel at his stamina for a filmmaker approaching octogenarian status. Since 2003’s “Mystic River”, Eastwood has delivered one solid picture after another and this film about Nelson Mandela enlisting a rugby team captain in an effort to unify South Africa could almost join those others. While it is solidly constructed and boasts some solid performances like his other films, it is a little too comfortable for its own good, lacking any real emotional impact.

Based on the events leading up to and following the 1995 Rugby World Cup which was held in South Africa, “Invictus” cannot be considered as Eastwood’s attempt at a “feel-good sports movie”, nor can it be considered as a Nelson Mandela film.  Instead, it is a well-crafted yet broad-stroked look at racial divide during a volatile and political-charged environment.

After spending decades locked away on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman ) is released in 1990 only  to face  immediate challenges in his post-apartheid nation. The scar tissue and racial tensions remain in atmosphere of crime and unemployment.  Mandela occupies himself with the challenge of initiating democratic elections as he is elected president in 1994. Yet the racial pressures around him persist, as evidenced in his security detail consisting of both black and white agents.  While attending a game for the national rugby team, the Springboks, Mandela witnesses firsthand the segregation of blacks and whites in the stadium and comes up with an idea.

Mandela invites the captain of the team, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), over for tea to see what it will take for the team to win the World Cup when South Africa hosts the tournament the following year. Pienaar is honored to be included in Mandela’s vision, seeing the unspoken meaning behind the goal: to heal a wounded country by way of a global sporting event. If the world, not just the country, can see South Africa come together and rally behind a team that non-whites used to be prejudiced against, then maybe a cultural and financial shift can occur for the better. As the film progresses, we see the uphill battle both men embark on in order to realize their goal.

Anthony Peckham (“Sherlock Holmes”) adapted this screenplay from the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation by John Carlin. It’s a good thing the title was changed to the much shorter (yet confusing) “Invictus” which is a reference to a favorite poem of Mandela’s written by William Ernest Henley in 1875. In the film, Mandela shares with Pienaar that the poem encouraged him during his time in prison, inspiring him to “stand when all he wanted to do was lie down”. It’s a story that looks like a typical underdog story on the outside yet Eastwood doesn’t settle for such conventions. He only focuses his film on one goal which involves two men and those they must motivate to bring about an integrated future.

Due to such a precise storyline, there is little time spent on who Mandela is beyond his inspiring speeches and public perception. We catch a little glimpse of how possibly some regret he may have that his life’s work has taken a toll on his family life but not much beyond that. There are some scenes showing the disapproval of his friends and family, which show not only the stakes involved for Mandela but also some relatable humanity. The film is not about him though and as much as Freeman is born to play this Oscar-nominated role, it still leaves you wanting more. Freeman commands the role with a quiet dignity, wry humor and a poised determination, just what you’d come to expect of the veteran actor.

The more challenging role is that of Pienaar, who isn’t as interesting or captivating as Mandela.  Damon does his best both physically and emotionally with what he’s given, earning himself an Oscar nomination as well, but the character pales in comparison to Mandela’s magnetism. Still, Damon is best when we see Pienaar challenged with the task of turning around his teammate’s mentality toward his vision, since they feel they are being used simply as a device for a seemingly unobtainable dream. In order to inspire his team and help them to better understand Mandela, Pienaar takes them on a field trip to Robben Island Prison where they discouver firsthand the suffocating accommodations he endured. It’s a scene that carried weight even though it borders on prodding our emotions. If Mandela can endure such conditions yet still maintains that hope and faith that South Africa can transform then that should count for sufficient motivation for these players.

The most appealing and yet unconvincing characteristics of Pienaar can be found when we see him fail and struggle with his leadership role.  It’s appealing because it’s a character at his most vulnerable but somehow Damon just doesn’t completely sell it. While he excels in the athletic demands of the role and conveys an earnest desire to be his best for himself and others, Damon remains wooden throughout the film, never fully realizing a convincing character arc.  That’s not to say he’s unbearable to watch in the role, it just confirms that he should’ve received the Oscar nomination for his role in “The Informant” instead.

The rugby aspect of the film was really quite intriguing. While I had no idea what those players were doing on-screen as they manhandled each other into position with their grunts and bloody bruises as they work their way across the field, I was nevertheless impressed with both the way these scenes were shot and the sport in general. Clearly, there had to have been some actual rugby players performing in this film. My knees and elbows were sore just from watching.

Last year saw some really exceptional films focusing on South Africa and while this is a solid choice, it’s not one of the best. I’d save that for “District 9” and “Endgame” for sci-fi and political thriller, respectfully, both resonating with apartheid themes. If you’re like me and will see anything Eastwood puts his hands on and enjoy the work of Freeman and Damon, then you’ll wanna check this out.  Don’t write this one off as another sports or political film.  Embedded at the core of the film are themes of overcoming obstacles and preserving a vision despite hardship and adversity. Despite there being an inconsistent overall emotional impact, the film remains a timeless message of hope for all from a masterful director.

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