by Mel Valentin
"Invictus," the latest film from the prolific Clint Eastwood ("Gran Torino," "Changeling," "Million Dollar Baby," "Unforgiven," "Pale Rider," "The Outlaw Josey Wales") examines a little-known (to Americans) South African history, the unlikely alliance between Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader (and prisoner) who became South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, and Francois Pienaar, the captain of South Africa’s national rugby team (and longtime symbol of apartheid), the Springboks, as the rugby team made an improbable run at a World Cup title in 1995. Unfortunately, "Invictus"(“unconquered” in Latin) is Eastwood at his most Spielbergian (i.e., obvious, heavy-handed, unsubtle), a feel-good sports drama crammed with warm-hearted platitudes uttered by a saintly Mandela and a quick-to-come-around Pienaar that fails to explore South Africa, its racist history, or its ongoing social, cultural, and economic problems meaningfully.After the obligatory montage depicting the last, anxious days of apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) release from prison after 27 years in 1990 and his election only four years later as South Africa’s first fully democratic leader, Invictus focuses on Mandela’s first days in office as he tries to assuage white fears and deliver on promises to his African community. He begins by asking the white staffers under his predecessors to stay, then orders the head of his security detail, Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge), to integrate white security officers into the detail. Fueled by mistrust and fear, tensions are the norm, but the men gradually learn to work together and protect Mandela as he travels both inside South Africa and to foreign countries, where he attempts to convince foreign leaders to invest in South Africa.
"Another step toward late-career mediocrity for Clint Eastwood."
In the parallel storyline, Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the Springboks, faces the unenviable task of helping to elevate the mediocre Springboks become a world-class competitor before the World Cup, held for the first time in South Africa, is held in less than a year. With so little time, Pienaar and the Springboks seems doomed to failure, but Mandela sees the Springboks and the World Cup as a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to unify South Africans, regardless of race, into one country. Black South Africans, however, see rugby as a white-only sport. But with a speech or two (or three or four), Mandela coaxes Pienaar to see himself as more than just a rugby team leader, but as a national one too.
Once the objections of Mandela’s staff and Pienaar’s teammates have been overcome, Invictus devolves into a long-winded sports drama, with the Springboks winning, sometimes improbably, on their way to the World Cup finals and a meeting with New Zealand’s All Blacks, a team considered unbeatable. Eastwood mixes in scenes of Mandela attempting to reconcile with his estranged daughter, Pienaar’s parents (his father’s an unreconstructed racist, but he comes around, as expected), training, a side trip to an impoverished community (where the team have their eyes opened), an undeveloped subplot about a young African boy who develops an interest in rugby, and when the final match arrives, the obligatory cross-cutting between the players on the field, groaning and grunting their way toward triumph, and anxious South Africans, putting aside their differences, if only temporarily, to support the national team.And with the end of the match against New Zealand, an exchange of platitudes between Mandela and Pienaar, and the end credits (with photos of the real Mandela, Pienaar, and the Springboks sprinkled in), "Invictus" becomes the latest mediocre effort from a director who, once not that long ago, was among the best (or at least better) filmmakers working in the United States, but a flaccid, by-the-numbers screenplay, a tensionless story, and uninspired direction result in one of Eastwood’s least distinguished, most forgettable films. Not even Morgan Freeman playing the saintly (as depicted here anyway) Mandela or Matt Damon as the eager-to-change Pienaar (complete with credible accent and a shirtless scene to show off his pumped-up pectorals) are enough to elevate "Invictus" to anything except a minor (very minor) work by a major director who seems to have lost his way.
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originally posted: 12/11/09 04:31:06