Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, 2009

Movie poster courtesy of Spyglass Entertainment, Revelations Entertainment, Malpaso Productions, and Warner Bros. Pictures

I’m not a fan of westerns, war movies, or sports dramas, but in the last decade or so, Clint Eastwood has become one of my favorite actors and directors.   He won my heart forever with his 1995 film, The Bridges of Madison County (Well, ok, I’m a sucker for tragic love stories!) and I was practically bowled over with his 2004 film, Million Dollar Baby.   I eagerly await new films from Eastwood because I want to be awed at what he does next.  Eastwood doesn’t flinch from the grim realities of life and because he also forces us to see these grim realities, his films are sometimes difficult to watch, but always compelling!

In 2009, he made a film about Nelson Mandela’s campaign to win the World Cup Rugby match in 1995.  I was particularly interested in this film, because at the time I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa.  As a new volunteer, I was deeply interested in South African history and of course was interested in all things Nelson Mandela.  Furthermore, South Africa was in the midst of another World Cup frenzy, as the nation would be hosting the World Cup Soccer Match in 2010.

I couldn’t wait to see Invictus and read the book on which the film is based in the meantime, John Carlin's Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation.

Nelson Mandela was and is a brilliant political strategist and he attempted to heal the racial tensions remaining in the newly-established, post-apartheid South African democracy by rallying the nation to support the predominantly white South African rugby team, the Springboks, in their bid for the Rugby World Cup in 1995.  For Mandela, this attempt at unifying his country in this fashion was extremely controversial: the Springboks had, for many years, represented the brutality of the apartheid government.  Most of Mandela’s South Africa—black South Africans—where shocked and angered at Mandela’s request for his nation—black South Africans--to rally for this team they had historically despised.

Eastwood’s film attempts to capture the drama of this historical event and showcases the talent of actor Morgan Freeman, who plays Nelson Mandela.  Freeman, in addition to starring in the film, also produced it.

I enjoyed Morgan Freeman’s performance of  Nelson Mandela very much and truthfully can’t imagine anyone else handling the role.  Freeman beautifully captures Mandela’s strength and determination at unifying his nation by insisting that the “forgiveness begins here” –within his  administration and among his staff.  Freeman also had me laughing out loud at several gentle comedic moments in the film.

Matt Damon was cast as the Springbok’s team captain at that time,Francoise Pienaar. Damon’s casting choice has been criticized and I admit, he doesn’t seem quite right for the role, but I can’t imagine anyone else better to play him.  Perhaps a beefy Brad Pitt?  I thought Damon had the quiet strength and determination that Pienaar surely exhibited in leading his team in 1995.  What is most obvious in the film is Damon’s physique in comparison to his rugby-playing teammates: Damon is an American actor while true South African rugby players were cast as his teammates.  Rugby players, in every sense of the word, are giants and Damon does seem remarkably smaller in size when standing beside these guys.

I’m not a sports fan (sorry!) and most of the movie highlights the actual World Cup Rugby match.  I thought Eastwood did a great job of capturing the drama and excitement of the game—especially with the tense moments at the end of the game--when all of the rugby players were exhausted yet unrelenting in their final bids for the win.  Eastwood’s direction also captures what it must feel like to be inside the “scrum” of a rugby match.

However, in the end, I was ultimately disappointed in the film.  It came off a bit flat for me.  Perhaps my expectations of it were too high.  I noted too, that much of what Mandela did politically to posture the Springboks for the win was very controversial and politically brilliant, but the film does not quite portray the weight of Mandela’s gestures.  For example, we know from reading the book how significant it was for Mandela to wear the jersey and cap of the Springbok team at the final match and in front of the nation and the world, but in the film, this significance is lost.

An interesting note:  Watch for Eastwood’s son, cast  as a Springbok team member.  The family resemblance is amazing and it is fun to spot him.

Also, Eastwood closes his film with actual photographs of the Springbok team playing in 1995, so as a viewer, you see the actual players.  It was a touching way to close the film and fun to see the actual players.

The soundtrack for the film and music selections has been criticized but I thought the music captured the mood of the time and the historical significance of events quite nicely.  

The film is certainly worth seeing, if only for Freeman’s performance as Mandela.  Both Freeman and Damon were nominated for Academy Awards, for best actor and best supporting actor, respectively.  And, although a bit flat, Eastwood does deliver another fine film. 

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