Monday, December 14, 2009

Movie Review: Invictus

Invictus *** ½
Directed by:
Clint Eastwood
Written By: Anthony Peckham based on the book by John Carlin.
Starring: Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela), Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar), Tony Kgoroge (Jason Tshabalala), Patrick Mofokeng (Linga Moonsamy), Matt Stern (Hendrick Booyens), Julian Lewis Jones (Etienne Feyder), Adjoa Andoh (Brenda Mazibuko), Marguerite Wheatley (Nerine), Leleti Khumalo (Mary), Patrick Lyster (Mr. Pienaar), Penny Downie (Mrs. Pinnear), Sibongile Nojila (Eunice).

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is an inspirational sports movie with a twist. Most movies about sports concentrate on the athletes, or perhaps the coaches, involved in the sport themselves. Invictus concentrates on a character who never sets foot on a rugby field to play, and really does not know the game very well. What he does know is politics, and as the newly elected President of a country torn apart by decades of violence and injustice, a populace struggling with the new look of their country, the desire by some for things to stay the same, and for others to completely overhaul the system, this man sees an opportunity to bring his entire country together to celebrate. The man is Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), who is released from jail in South Africa after decades, sweeps to power to the joy of the black population, and the fear of the whites. He fights his desire for revenge. Instead, what he wants to is bring everyone together. In the 1995 Rugby World Cup, where South Africa will play host, he sees his opportunity.

The blacks in South Africa hate rugby. They see it as the game of their oppressors. They much prefer soccer. But to the white population, rugby is a way of life. Their national team is known as the Springboks and to some the name, emblem and colors (green and gold) represents apartheid. The year before the world cup, the Springboks are struggling on the field. What few black Africans do bother to show up for the game cheer for whoever the Springboks are playing against. They don’t care who it is, they just do not want to see the Springboks win, and have their former oppressors be happy.

What Mandela understands, that few others did, is the camaraderie and pride that come along with sports. We’ve seen it here in Canada at times. Do you remember when the Canadian Olympic team won gold in hockey in 2002? People took to the streets in celebration. For a few brief moments we celebrated together as a country. No imagine if that happened to a country more torn apart than we are, and you get an idea of what happened in 1995 in South Africa.

Invictus tells this story with intelligence and insight. I cannot think of another sports movie that interweaves politics to this degree in its narrative. Yeah, it probably fudges a little bit at points to make everything seem a little brighter than it was, but the fact of the matter is on a continent that is torn apart by starvation, genocide and constant civil wars, South Africa is a remarkably peaceful country. In large part because of the political genius of Mandela.

Morgan Freeman is probably the only Hollywood actor capable of playing Mandela. You do kind of wish that perhaps a talented South African actor had been allowed to play a person who was so important to their country, yet after seeing the job Freeman does here, I can hardly complain. Freeman is one of those actors you instinctively trust and like. He exudes intelligence and wisdom and in this movie, you go right along with him as Mandela. The other major role in the movie is played by Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the Springboks that Mandela reaches out and inspires. His teammates, all white except for one player, resist Mandela like most of the rest of the population, but Mandela wins over Pienaar quickly, and gets him on his side. He provides an ally for Mandela inside the locker room that turns the Springboks into more than just a team.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, Invictus plays it perhaps a little too safe. Eastwood is a filmmaker with remarkable restraint – he never gussies up the style of a film just for style’s sake, and here he does the same thing. He simply tells his story, and does a very good job at it. If I am a little disappointed, it’s because Eastwood in recent years has seemed to constantly challenge himself, and pushed himself farther as a filmmaker. In Invictus, he doesn’t. This is a safe film, and Eastwood takes no chances. Yet he finds the appropriate style of tell his story. Invictus may not rank among the triumphs of Eastwood’s career – it doesn’t come close to matching Bird, Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby or Letters from Iwo Jima – but it is a solid entertainment. Although it is a safe story, it wraps us up in an inspiration tale well told. Sometimes that’s enough, even from a great filmmaker.

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