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6 reviews, 10 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Praise The Generous Gods. . ."
4 stars

As a director, the films of Clint Eastwood tend to fall into one of three categories. There are the ones that he quickly tosses off over the space of a few weeks just to keep busy or to earn enough money at the box-office to allow him the leeway to do something a little more ambitious--largely forgettable potboilers like “The Rookie,” “True Crime” and “Blood Work” that tend to contain one or two inventive ideas surrounded by a lot of filler that even Dave Kehr would have trouble justifying on any artistic level. There are the ones where he sets off with nothing more in mind than to tell a strong and solid story in a lean and economical manner--an approach that has led to any number of wonderful films including such career highlights as “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “Bronco Billy” and the Oscar-winning triumphs “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby” as well as gripping entertainments as “High Plains Drifter,” “Pale Rider,” “Space Cowboys” and even “The Bridges of Madison County.” Finally, there are those projects where he tries so hard to make a profound artistic statement, perhaps to prove to any remaining naysayers that he is a serious filmmaker and not just another actor who made his way behind the camera, that the sheer effort overwhelms everything else he has to offer and turns the resulting films into pretentious drags--this has resulted in wildly overrated works as “Mystic River” and “Changeling” and outright duds like “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “Flags of our Fathers” and the virtually unspeakable “Gran Torino.”

For most of his career, Eastwood’s films have largely fit into that second category and when they did slip into one of the others, it was a rare enough occasion that such missteps could be easily forgiven or forgotten. In recent years, however, his output has increasingly fallen into the third category with commensurately intolerable results--I am still not certain that I have fully recovered from the sickly combination of pretentiousness and slapdash style that was “Gran Torino”--and as a result, I must admit that I went into the screening of his latest film, “Invictus,” with more than a little wariness. For starters, it is a film based on a true story and that is a narrative style that has never quite suited him particularly well over the years, as the likes of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “Flags of our Fathers” and
“Changeling” have made painfully clear. Then there is the fact that it is an inspirational sports melodrama, a genre that, despite my vague fondness for the current “The Blind Side,” hasn’t done much good for anyone over the year. Finally, the very conceit of the film--a depiction of how Nelson Mandela used the seemingly ridiculous notion of South Africa’s woeful rugby team winning the 1995 World Cup as a way of uniting the nation during the tense early months of his presidency--sounded like such an insufferably profound and dramatic bit of Oscar bait that one could almost hear it creaking from the weight of its oh-so-noble intentions. Thankfully, it turns out that this is not the case after all. It is, in fact, a surprisingly nimble and low-key treatment of a story that could have easily be blown up into a portentous drag and while it may not belong in the top rank of Eastwood’s directorial efforts, it is easily the most engaging and interesting thing that he has done behind the camera since “Million Dollar Baby.”

The film opens in February, 1990 as Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is released from the jail cell that he languished in for 27 years during the dark days of apartheid and quickly sketches in how he became the newly-elected president of the country that once imprisoned him in 1994. Upon taking office, Mandela quickly realizes that his most immediately pressing task is to figure out a way of cooling down the still-simmering tensions between the newly enfranchised black population and whites who fear that the blacks will use his election as an excuse to settle long-running scores. (“He Can Win An Election, But Can He Lead A Country?” reads a newspaper headline shortly after he takes office.) At first, Mandela tries to lead by example by working with whites--most notably by supplementing his personal security team with white Afrikaners from the previous administration--instead of playing into their fears by completely shutting them out but this both fails to assuage the whites and it angers many of his more radical black supporters who are frankly looking for some payback for their years of oppression. Despite his efforts, the racial divide is still so great that when Mandela attends a rugby match between the local Springboks and a British team, he realizes that the reaction of the crowd in the stadium is exactly the same as when he would hear matches on the radio in prison--the whites are cheering for the home team while the blacks are cheering for their opponents.

With the World Cup of rugby scheduled to be played in South Africa in less than a year, the politically savvy Mandela surmises that if the Springboks can somehow win the entire thing, it would go a long way towards symbolically bringing all of his countrymen together behind one common goal. The trouble with this idea is that the team is such a symbol of the old ways in the eyes of much of the black populace that a motion is passed to rename the team and get rid of the gold and green outfits representing the country’s former flag and such a terrible team in the eyes of everyone else that they would hardly qualify for the tournament in the first place if it weren’t for the fact that their country was hosting it. Nevertheless, Mandela summons the team’s captain, Francois Pienarr (Matt Damon), a no-nonsense player embarrassed with the relentless mediocrity of the Springboks, and appeals to him by speaking of leading by example in such a way that he becomes convinced that the team just might be able to exceed all expectations by making it to the Cup finals. While Mandela goes about the seemingly impossible dream of pulling the country together, Pienarr attempts to do the same for the team and against all expectations, the Springboks make it to the finals where, in a bit of irony, they play for the honor of their newly united homeland against a largely white New Zealand team known as the All Blacks.

The challenge in making a film like “Invictus” is the fact that even though many potential audience members may not be intimately familiar with this particular story, they likely know enough to surmise how it all turns out in the end based solely on the fact that if things turned out differently, it is highly unlikely that anyone would consider it to be worthwhile movie material. Luckily, Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham manage to sidestep this potential problem by focusing on the smaller and more intriguing details instead of giving viewers a bland and boring approach that over-explains everything while dragging the story to a halt. While another film, one less sure of itself or of the audience’s ability to grasp the situation, might have presented us with numerous scenes illustrating the racial tensions that developed in the wake of Mandela’s election in the most blatantly obvious manner possible, “Invictus” smartly filters this material through the conflicts involving the two groups of security agents who have been thrown together at the behest of Mandela himself--these scenes not only cannily depict in a surprisingly subtle manner how the initial fears and mistrusts on both sides give way to a certain understanding, they do so while still propelling the story forward instead of grinding things to a halt. Some American viewers may be annoyed by the fact that the film never takes time out to explain the rules of rugby but this turns out to be yet another smart idea. Although one could argue that this decision was made because such scenes would be unnecessary in much of the rest of the world were rugby is enormously popular--how many contemporary baseball movies can you recall that have taken time explain all of its rules?--it works because by simply plunging viewers into the chaos and forcing them to puzzle it out for themselves, it draws them further into the story and gets them more involved. As the rugby sequences continue, especially in the 18-minute concluding World Cup, what initially appears to be a brutal, ugly and haphazard rumble between two groups eventually reveals itself to be more graceful and logical than one might expect--in other words, it becomes a fairly inspired metaphor for South Africa itself without seeming too overt..

The idea of casting Morgan Freeman as Mandela is one of those things that seems so obvious and on-the-nose on the surface (indeed, it is a role that he has talked about playing for years) that many people will probably go into “Invictus” expecting the usual histrionics that have become de rigueur now that now that impersonating a famous person has become the easiest way to score an acting Oscar outside of being a supporting actress in a Woody Allen film. Instead, Freeman takes the same relaxed and restrained approach to his work as Eastwood and both the performance and the film as a whole are better for it. While he may not give a flawless impersonation of the man in the usual ways--his attempt to replicate Mandela’s voice is a bit shaky at time--he invests the character with the aura of gentleness mixed with tenacity possessed by the real Mandela that allows him to show strength and force in his scenes as the public leader and a softer and more vulnerable side in his private moments. This is an achievement far more significant that being able to pull off a few vocal tricks and the result is one of the better performances of his career. Conversely, I can’t imagine that Matt Damon is the ideal image of a South African rugby star in the minds of many people but he is equally impressive here as Pienarr--his work here is so thoroughly convincing that it serves as one more reminder that he is one of the most versatile American actors working today. The supporting cast, consisting largely of relative unknowns, is also remarkably effective with Tony Kgoroge a standout as the head of Mandela’s security detail.

“Invictus” does have a few missteps here and there--a running bit showing the gradual bonding process between Pienarr’s parents and their black maid is a bit embarrassing and there are a couple of self-indulgent musical montages that unfortunately hark back to Eastwood’s deployment of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in “Play Misty for Me”--but it does so many other things far better than anyone could have hoped that it is easy to forgive and forget them. Whether you look at it as a biopic, a stirring testament to the human spirit or the latest entry in one of the more interesting American directorial careers of our time, “Invictus” is an undeniably effective work. Besides, when was the last time you saw a sports-related film in which the greatest and most significant victory was won before the final game even began?

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19069&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/11/09 00:06:36
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User Comments

1/17/11 millersxing Better as a human interest film than as pure sports nostalgia; the underdog story compels! 5 stars
10/24/10 mr.mike "Is no bad". Freeman and Damon excel. 4 stars
3/17/10 Bob Dog sadly underrated 5 stars
3/06/10 HamIAm It is about Mandela, and his wisdom in the face of an impossible situation. 5 stars
2/12/10 MP Bartley Eastwood has the knack of making any cliche seem honest and heartfelt. 4 stars
12/31/09 Phineas "St" Mandela is a Racist that's taken SA to the sewer. Blacks Can't Run anything Right. 1 stars
12/25/09 Suzz possibly the worst sports-themed film I've ever seen. Poorly directed and performed. 2 stars
12/17/09 Debbie Brooks Hey, Nit picky reviewers- Feel-good is OK! 5 stars
12/13/09 Flounder The script is pro forma (in a bad way) but it benefits from solid performances. 3 stars
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  11-Dec-2009 (PG-13)
  DVD: 18-May-2010


  DVD: 18-May-2010

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