Friday, December 18, 2009
A Few Thoughts on Invictus
Biopics about noble leaders of troubled countries (Gandhi) usually focus on said leader dealing with crisis after crisis. This film, about the presidency of Nelson Mandela and how he set out to repair the rift between whites and blacks in post-Apartheid South Africa, chooses the narrow focus of Mandela using his support of the mostly white rugby team, the Springboks, to show goodwill towards the whites and to build unity by supporting the team’s bid for the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is predictable, simplistic, and naively pat, but it is a well-intended drama held together by the performances of Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as the Springbok’s captain, Francois Peinaar.
As Mandela, Freeman imitates the South African president’s slow speech to an irritating extent, and after the first few inspiring speeches his words fall somewhat flat, but Freeman conjures a commanding presence and he portrays Mandela’s enthusiasm for the team and his love for his country genuinely and touchingly.
Matt Damon has that solid, sporty look that works for his character, and it’s hard not to root for him. He shows convincing devotion to his team, and he fits believably into the rough, chaotic action of ruck and maul, and elements of the game that must be totally alien to American audience members: the unique scrum, which is like bighorn sheep butting heads, and the even more unusual lineout (my favorite), when teammates are able to hold a leaping player up in the air so that he can catch the ball being thrown into play.
The film starts skillfully with two parallel scenes of tension. The black head of Mandela’s security is not happy about having to include white members of the police as part of the security force. After all, these are the same police who arrested men like Mandela and his followers. As they go over the president’s schedule, tensely crammed together in a small room, Mandela faces his staff, the white members grumbling about how they expect to be fired. But Mandela’s dramatic speech convinces his staff that they are all needed to guide Africa along a new path.
As politics hang in the background, the film turns into the typical sports movie as the underdog team wins its way to the championship match and, predictably, wins the big one. With all the hackneyed shots of jubilant spectators, the big game is something we’ve seen before, but Freeman’s and Damon’s solid performances made me care about what happened even though I knew what was going to happen.