Friday, December 11, 2009

Invective for 'Invictus'

While watching Matt Damon in "Invictus," I thought, "Aren't you a little short to be a rugby player?" Damon clearly did some Rocky Balboa-worthy weight training to beef up for his role as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the 1995 South African team that won the rugby world cup and united a fractured nation. In trying to fill Pienaar's shoes, he may even have worn some platformed cleats on his boots. But, to fill out the other 14 players in the cast, the casting director seems to have put the green and gold jersey on a bunch of shorties so that everyone would fit into the frame.

As a South Africa rugby fan, I'd been looking forward to Clint Eastwood's latest December release and wondered how he'd depict. Purely from a technical point of view, the rugby scenes are only intermittently convincing. The players simply don't have the stature and physique of a Springbok (or an All Black, for that matter). The filmmakers hired a company called Sports Studio that specializes in accurately recreating sports events on film (in the past, they've worked on movies such as "Coach Carter," "We Are Marshall," and "Miracle"). The filmmakers were careful to try recreate many of the actual plays of the game. But, to be honest, the cast -- which, according to Rugby Mag are "actual rugby players who play in some type of league in South Africa" -- seem more like weekend amateurs than test-caliber players. There's clearly an athletic skill level that's missing and they don't comport themselves like test-level players. To the average American viewer, that may not matter, though if they paused to consider what these cast members would look like in a movie about the NFL, they'd realize the, er, shortcomings of the cast. Eastwood does a nice job of moving the camera around the field and in an out of the scrum.

Damon hardly gets a character arc but he does a great job with the South African accent -- one of the trickiest to master -- and local colloquialisms. Morgan Freeman fares worse with the linguistics. But the veteran actor does capture the spirit of Nelson Mandela and his natural nobility, grace, and innate leadership skills. But mostly we see the public persona. There's a dekightful scene at a party where Mandela, now separated from his wife, Winnie, flirts with a woman on the dance floor. It's one of the few times in the movie where we get a glimpse of Mandela the actual man rather than the hagiographed legend.

Clint Eastwood's late career films have explored the consequences of violence, the poisonous impulse of revenge, and learning to love one's neighbor regardless of their class or race. He seems ideally suited to film this story but, alas, opts for broad-strokes filmmaking that dilutes what could have been an intelligent movie. For example, the first scene depicts black kids playing soccer on the one side of the road and white kids playing rugby on the other side of the street. Mandela's convoy rides down the middle of the street symbolizing that he is going to unite a divided nation. The metaphor is about as subtle as a Jonah Lomu tackle. Much of the movie is like that. In one scene, Francois Pienaar visits Mandela's jail cell on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town. Here, one sees just how cramped and spartan his quarters were. But the scene's effectiveness is undercut by the image of Mandela's ghost as Pienaar imagines Mandela's imprisonement.

Bizarrely, the film also tries to generate false suspense. Early on, the director implies that a van of assassins is heading toward Mandela during his early morning run. It turns out to be a newspaper delivery van. Later, a South African Airways jet performed a dangerous low-flying manouever over Ellis Park stadium for the opening ceremonies of the cup final. It's a thrilling recreation of an actual event. Yet, in the film, Mandela's security detail appears unaware that such a flyover had been planned. That seems implausible to me. Worse, Eastwood tricks viewers into thinking that the pilot is on a suicide mission to kill Mandela and those in the stadium. To what end?

Eastwood fares much better at portraying how the whole country was swept up in cup final fever and scenes of the stadium supporters and people across the country crammed around television sets are highly effective.

In all, the film has commendable moments but the overall execution left me feeling that this story would have been better told as a documentary that used archival footage and interviews with those involved.

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