Sunday, January 10, 2010

Movie Review: Invictus

The Boy was particularly eager to see the latest Clint Eastwood movie, Invictus. I had some reservations about it myself. I remember all the anti-apartheid protests of the '80s, which were all focused on divesting. While I got the potential power of the statement, I questioned the practical effect of success. (Withdrawing all the investment money from a country would hardly be likely to result in a happy ending.)

Anyway, South Africa-based apartheid stories have always sort of put me off (exception: District 9) but The Boy makes very few direct requests. So off we went.

Verdict? Warm, if not exactly enthusiastic applause. Now, on one level, I'm liking these movies better in some ways than the slicker films of his early '70s (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River) but I can't deny that the unevenness may not have universal appeal. It's a fair call to point out Gran Torino, for example, is corny. I personally loved that, however.

Invictus? Actually cornier. Mostly in a good Capra-esque way, but a few of the pop songs do demand your attention, and they're a bit heavy. The score is generally an interesting mish-mash, with a jazzy '70s-ish track characteristic of Eastwood movies going back to Play Misty For Me, and a couple of tracks that are reminiscent of the marvelous Thomas Newman. (Eastwood veteran Michael Stevens also worked on the score, so I don't know who's who as far as the music goes.)

I mention the music I suppose because the story itself is—well, in an earlier era, I'd call it inevitably corny. These days, the inverse is true: A story like this would almost demand to be a tale of venality and corruption in order to be taken seriously at all.

But, hey, it's Eastwood. He's 79, and with five-and-a-half decades of showbiz experience in the bank, he's gonna do whatever he damn well pleases.

So, it's corny. This is the story of the persecuted man who ends up in charge of a country deeply divided by an ancient historical animus. But rather than strike back at his former tormentors, he seeks to mend the country's problems by soliciting a celebrity member of the former ruling class to unite everyone.

You see? The main characters are all good. There's no villain, except human frailty.

It basically works, though. Morgan Freeman's Mandela is the acting polar opposite of Langella's towering Nixon. Freeman almost disappears, portraying Mandela as a very humble, even ordinary guy. You end up thinking "Of course this is the right thing to do. Any decent person—and certainly a great leader—would know that."

And then you get depressed because even this level of basic competence and humanity exists in a vanishingly small percentage of politicians worldwide.

But it was a good way to go; you end up venerating Mandela without wallowing in martyrdom, and the story ends up being a nice, light one, with a strong, serious undercurrent that doesn't obscure the message of hope.

So, occasionally, the music makes you aware of the corniness which otherwise is similarly pleasant, as it was in Gran Torino.

The story, if you don't know it, involves Mandela's solicitation of rugby star Francois Pienaar, and Mandela's exhortation for the rather desultory South African rugby team to win the World Cup, a contest they clearly have no business winning.

It seems that rugby is a white man's sport—the team has only one black player—and the South African blacks (more invested in soccer) traditionally voted against the nation's team, which still uses the old flag and prefers the old anthem.

So Mandela's task is to inspire the team, unite the country behind them, and ultimately invest the country in the team's winning. The movie doesn't at all suggest that this is his main task as leader, and the other characters react with astonishment at his own level of interest. Ultimately, Eastwood's juxtaposition of the "sports movie" with more serious dramatic genres is what raises it a cut above.

The acting is fine, though some die-hard rugby fans chafe at the notion of Matt Damon playing the considerably bulkier Pienaar, but he looked pretty bulky to me. It's not a role with a wide dramatic range, but Damon's actually pretty good at becoming this kind of stoic, rugged character. He's a good second banana.

Still, it's primarily Freeman's movie, with various characters reflecting off of him. Where his talent particularly comes through is that he manages to do this without hogging the screen. The others get their space.

So, we liked it, even if it didn't knock our socks off. I wouldn't recommend it, however, if you're looking for a more sports-action movie (like a Hoosiers or a Victory); the actual rugby scenes aren't that many, and they're kind of hard to follow (unless maybe you're well versed in rugby already, maybe).

I only mention this because my mom found it a little "talky". But she loved Victory.


  1. My sister-in-law, a South African by birth [and now American], said the accents were spot on.

    I feel like I went in not really knowing enough of the back story, but only the broad brush strokes of apartheid. I found the prison visit especially moving.

    My favorite line was the first day in office when his aides are trying to protect him from the headlines that read, 'he can get elected, but can he lead?' and I immediately thought of OUR president. Mandela's answer was perfect: 'It's a legitimate question!'

  2. Yeah, I found myself thinking that, really, Mandela (as portrayed) wasn't so much a great leader as a sensible man.

    He worked hard and actually tried to do the right thing, not worrying about his "legacy", revenge, or even popularity.

    That was sort of depressing to realize how little it takes to be a competent leader, and how few competent leaders we actually have.

    But it was a great choice for the movie. Heh.

  3. I love Victory and my husband ridicules me mercilessly for it.


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