Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review: "Invictus"

"Invictus" is an inspirational sports movie, and not much more.

Director Clint Eastwood's newest effort clearly has grander ambitions, wanting to wrap up the story of the South African national rugby team's quest for the 1995 World Cup with that fractured nation's need for healing after decades of hateful apartheid.

Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 27 years, released and elected president of the nation that branded him a terrorist. Matt Damon is Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks rugby team, so identified with white Afrikaner rule that black South Africans habitually cheered for whatever team was playing against them.

The most interesting part of the movie is the calculation that Mandela takes in supporting the team, which has exactly one black member and has played so poorly they're considered laughingstocks by the international sports community. There's even a scene of the president interrupting state business to rush over to a meeting of the sports commission to urge them not to change the team's colors and nickname.

Mandela does this, he freely admits to his aides, for political purposes. If the nation, black and white, can set aside their animosity long enough to cheer for their rugby team, Mandela reckons it will do more for unity than any dozen speeches he could give.

And yet, he cannot prevent himself from getting caught up in the pure emotion of their plight, as they overcome powerhouse teams like Australia and New Zealand to grasp for the prize.

The movie's biggest problem is that it's about rugby. There's quite a bit of on-field action -- the climactic game runs 15 minutes -- and the stark truth is most Americans don't know the first thing about the sport, other than its brutal reputation.

To these eyes, it's a helter-skelter dash of beefy men colliding over a skinny oval ball. Sometimes a man with the ball is tackled and the play is dead, and sometimes another player just grabs the ball off the ground and keeps going with it. Even by the end of the movie, I was mystified as to what the rules are.

Eastwood endeavors mightily to make it compelling, but trying to accomplish that with an audience unfamiliar with the game is like telling a joke to a roomful of Englishmen in Swahili.

Damon gives a gutsy, physical performance, buffing up enough to be believable as a rugby hooligan, and mastering the Dutch-flavored Afrikaans accent so well I actually had difficulty understanding him at times. (I laughed early on when he urges his team to "Focus! Focus!" and it sounds like ... well, something else.)

Freeman is Freeman, meaning he invests every role with weight and wit, so even though he looks and sounds little like Nelson Mandela, we convince ourselves this is a behind-the-scenes portrait of the great man.

Anthony Peckham wrote the script based on a book by John Carlin, and it has some nice touches. I liked the subplot about the president's security team, led by a black nationalist who resents the experienced white officers brought in to bolster his ranks. As they gradually lay aside their enmity, it acts as a tidy microcosm of the nation.

The title, by the way, comes from a poem by William Ernest Henley, which Mandela gives a hand-written copy of to Pienaar to inspire him. It means "unconquered" in Latin, and the key lines are, "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

I recommend "Invictus" because it's well-executed and engaging, even though the movie feels like a bundle of promising elements that never synch up.

3 stars

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