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.