Brandon's Word: Clint Eastwood's Invictus is a Thoughtful Success
by Brandon Lee Tenney
December 10, 2009
Clint Eastwood is of a different time. His style is one of measured calculation and controlled photography. He directs with purpose and poise. He's an actor's director, affording his cast lengthy takes without much manipulation or interference from him behind the camera. At times, he uses this strategy to a fault, thinking himself a one-take director or lingering too long, too often. But more often than not, Eastwood's style is a refreshing taste of what once was. And there's no denying that the man just knows movies. With Invictus, Eastwood's latest directorial venture, all the best of him is present, making it his best work since Letters from Iwo Jima and, before that, Unforgiven.
As the film opens, we're given a brief history lesson on Nelson Mandela via stock footage. This footage, however, replaces Mandela with Morgan Freeman playing the just-elected, controversial President of South Africa. It's a clever choice, for from that moment on it's not Freeman that's seen, he is Nelson Mandela, and to make such a recognizable face so invisible is a testament to both Freeman and Eastwood. It's this pairing that really causes Invictus to thrive. Morgan Freeman portrays Mandela with gravitas and humility; it's a phenomenal display. Watching such a seasoned actor give such a thoughtful performance as shot by the consummate actor's director is a joy.
Invictus is at its best when the characters are provided the opportunity to just talk, to engage in honest conversation. About half-way through, Matt Damon, who plays the captain of the South African Springboks rugby team, is called to Mandela's presidential office for tea. It's in this scene that Mandela and Francois Pienaar engage in a conversation that resonates throughout the rest of the film. It's that powerful, for both the characters and the viewer. Like Freeman, Matt Damon gives a humble, understated performance. Damon is also invisible, at home in the background when necessary, an everyman who rises to spur on real change.
There's hope throughout the film, but it never crosses over into idealistic territory. As a counterpoint, there's also real tension. The constant threat of the unstable South African populous, the threat of Mandela's assassination, is ever looming. Eastwood uses this to great avail. Even in one of the more overblown scenes of threat, and this may be considered to be a spoiler, a plane buzzes the stadium before the final rugby match. It's hard not to feel a pang of dread in your stomach in this post-9/11 world.
In tandem with Invictus's political overtones, social commentary, and historical narrative is a very competent sports story. It doesn't pave new ground, the South African Springboks don't have a chance as the film gets underway; they're underdogs and garner little faith from their mostly-white fanbase and rampant opposition from the blacks. As a representation of the fresh wound that is the Apartheid, the Springboks are hated by blacks; most of them making a point to root for any and every team other than the Springboks. It's Mandela that realizes rugby may prove to quickly abolish that segregated attitude, this is, if the Springboks can win the Rugby World Cup.
Like the television show Friday Night Lights, every game shown on screen is not just a rugby match. Each moment the Springboks are shown on the pitch is a battle against segregation, against the old ways of South Africa, a battle for Mandela's change and his vision. The subtext puts your heart into every hit, even if you've never seen a rugby match in your life. And the games are all very exciting in their own right. Don't worry about the game of rugby, it's quickly and masterfully explained during a beautiful, heartwarming scene where the Springboks teach a group of black children about the game.
Invictus, though, is not without fault. During the rugby matches, Eastwood's propensity to use slow motion wore my patience thin. The bitter end of the final match is especially slow-mo heavy, causing it to feel very overlong and forcing the emotional catharsis to be sustained instead of hitting hard and fast, which does its best to kill the euphoria. There's also a very poignant scene where Francois Pienaar brings his team to see exactly where Mandela spent so long in prison which is all but ruined by the inclusion of a hokey ghost version of Nelson Mandela. I knew why Pienaar was there, I didn't need it bashed over my head with an apparition. And, of course, there's the music. For the most part the African tribal-fusion score is passable, but there are a few low points, as there are always seem to be in an Eastwood film. One such song croons the word "colorblind" as Mandela touches down in a helicopter to wish the Springboks good luck before the final match, as if we didn't realize it means more than just a World Cup victory. We get it, Clint.
Now, there's a lot of vitriol collecting around Invictus. And while it's not my favorite film of the year, the best directed, the best written, or home to the best acting (though Morgan Freeman does deserve a nomination), all of the above are so solid in their executions that it's appalling that anyone could make the argument that Invictus is, in any way, a bad film. Invictus is perhaps competent to a fault, to use the words of a friend of mine. It's affecting and well done and hits its marks far more often than missing. And I just liked it. I really liked it. I love what Clint Eastwood is able to do behind the camera, even if I'm not always thrilled with what's happening in front of it (Million Dollar Baby, anyone?). I love his austere style and controlled hand. The man knows movies. And I'll be there to watch his on opening day, every time.
Reader Feedback - 15 Comments
Clint Eastwood is icon and i like him better actor than a Director but i did like Grand Torino im not so intrested about invictus it not my type of film i sounds to me it more political than realy entertaing. 😉
Cineprog on Dec 10, 2009
this makes me even more excited for the Word Cup in SA. I know it's not rugby, but still.
branden on Dec 10, 2009
Clint is the man
Trey m on Dec 10, 2009
2 thoughts that made me, an ignorant 20 something year old, not like the film as much as I should have. 1 - I don't know Nelson Mandela's background. It was never clearly said what he did to deserve his jail sentence. 2 - I don't know rugby. I wish we could have taken 5 of last 20 slow mo rugby minutes and inserted them as Matt Damon explaining more of the basics of Rugby to the kids. Or even the body guards getting a lesson in it. Something more, because I was lost and uninterested toward the end for all the game matches.
Tim on Dec 10, 2009
>>With Invictus, Eastwood's latest directorial venture, all the best of him is present, making it his best work since Letters from Iwo Jima and, before that, Unforgiven. Nonsense. Million Dollar Baby is his best film & vastly superior - as is Gran Torino - to Unforgiven. Looking forward to Invictus.
Verity on Dec 10, 2009
did you bash MDB?? it is probably his best effort to date
nelson on Dec 10, 2009
its amazing damon can go from playing a fat,goofy bastard in the informant to a rugby team captain,in the same year. that said,I can't think of any other sport more boring to be made a film subject than rugby.maybe cricket,netball and water polo.so maybe i'll watch this in 20 years when it plays on HBO and i'm too damn old to care. as for gran torino,i swear i must've either watched a different film altogether or seen a rough,early cut of the film.it was so thoroughly badly-acted and the characters so racially stereotyped,it was really one of the worst i've seen in my life. a single man review soon,i hope 🙂
twispious on Dec 10, 2009
#7, Cricket, try the film Lagaan. BUt net ball and water polo, lol i can imagine how boring that would be. But rugby film set in Europe with a criminal/gangster back tone would be great. I love Freeman, and i dig Eastwood so this is a must see, also the fact that Nelson got chosen to host the 2010 World Cup, so that makes it even more of a reason. I liked Letters but i thought that he did a great job in Million Dollar Baby, not sure if you forgot it or thought it wasnt up to par.
Nikhil Hariharan on Dec 10, 2009
Matt Damon is becoming an amazing actor. I dont know how he gains weight, loses weight etc for his roles so easily. Or at least he makes it look easy. And thank God for Clint Eastwood. Someone's making some good insightful quality films.
JimD on Dec 10, 2009
🙂 This is one of my most anticipated movies - I am a South African what can I say. That World Cup was unbelievable. Maybe SA will win the 2010 Soccer World Cup and they will make a movie about that. I somehow doubt that.
Phillip Gibb on Dec 10, 2009
#7, rugby is one of the fastest, most physical yest beautiful games everplayed, easy to criticise from your sofa, watching NFL ( the sport that stops for TV Ad breaks!!) Lookin gforward to this along the same lines as a Ghandi type biopic ( withsome great rugby visuals I hope!) Even though Matt Daman is far too small to play the great Pienaar, should be good.
ConnachtFan on Dec 11, 2009
Unforgiven is his best movie. Anyway, I'm excited for this.
SlashBeast on Dec 11, 2009
#4 I find it amazing you've never even bothered to watch a rugby game before in your 20-something year old life. Esspecially since 1/2 the world actually plays it. Imagine someone from outside US trying to grasp the fundamentals of your 'football' in a 2hr movie. As for your lack of knowledge RE Mandela, I honestly have no comment. I forgive CE for assuming Americans have any knowledge of the world outside their country...
Rich on Dec 11, 2009
I wasn't defending myself. I said my knowledge and lessened enjoyment was due to my own ignorance. I was just filling the role of devil's advocate as the general american population who will see this and may hold the same ignorances. Not saying it is right or that CE was wrong, just a point of view that I feel some will share.
Tim on Dec 11, 2009
IT sent shivers down my spine when i saw Invictus. Well i guess its because im a South African. I don't think it will have the same Effect on Oversea's people. But Go see it its an amazing Movie. Best Movie i'v ever see lol the whole cinema was soppy (crying) Well i no i was and my whole family 🙂 See guys its worth it trust me. Morgan Freeman is a Legend 🙂
Gareth Moore on Jan 14, 2010
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