Friday, December 11, 2009

Invictus: Fate's master

Invictus (2009) • View trailer for Invictus
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and quite needlessly, for fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.11.09
Buy DVD: Invictus• Buy Blu-Ray: Invictus [Blu-ray]

Although it eventually builds a full head of steam by the exciting third act, director Clint Eastwood's Invictus may be remembered more for its earlier, quieter moments:

• The pitch-dark 4 a.m. walks taken by newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), in the company of two bodyguards who fret about the ritualistic regularity of this practice, and how easily an ambush could be mounted;
When Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, left) arranges to meet rugby team
captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), their first conversation takes place
over afternoon tea: one of the greatest traditions brought to South Africa by
the British, in Mandela's view.

• The suspicion that characterizes interactions between the white and black members of Mandela's security team, and the oh-so-gradual thaw that eventually bonds these men through mutual respect;

• A shanty-town rugby session involving dirt-poor black children and the privileged members of the Springbok rugby team  fielding only one black player  when they're ordered to reach out to these young sports fans; and

• All interactions between Mandela and his feisty chief of staff, Brenda Mazibuko (Adjoa Andoh), who cannot understand why her boss devotes so much time and attention to something as "insignificant" as sports matches.

Ah, but that's the core of Anthony Peckham's carefully modulated screenplay  adapted from John Carlin's book, Playing the Enemy  which Eastwood has transformed into an uplifting underdog sports saga.

And one based on actual, history-making and life-changing events.

Invictus gets its name from the title of a poem by William Ernest Henley, which brought Mandela solace during the 27 years he spent in prison for his efforts to overthrow apartheid. Although the entire poem is deeply moving, its final two lines are key:

I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

The film begins on May 10, 1994, the day that Mandela takes office. He arrives to general chaos, as the previous administration's white staff members, having assumed their services no longer will be needed, pack hastily and try to leave inconspicuously. Mandela immediately puts a stop to such assumptions, and Freeman nails this short speech with just the right blend of surprise, sincerity and morale-building passion.

Shortly thereafter, Mandela's personal security team members  led by Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge) and Linga Moonsamy (Patrick Mofokeng)  are confronted by the arrival of several former Special Branch operatives, headed by Hendrick Booyens (Matt Stern) and Etienne Feyder (Julian Lewis Jones). At one time, these latter men would have routinely harassed and arrested the former.

Now, forced to work together, they represent the visible personification of Mandela's "rainbow nation": He wants to be seen in public, at all times, surrounded by staff members of both colors.

"Reconciliation starts here," Mandela tells a disbelieving Tshabalala. "Forgiveness starts here."

You just can't beat the quiet dignity of Freeman's delivery, nor the soul-stirring message conveyed by these words.

Mandela, however, is no fool; he knows full well that the mostly enlightened members of his political entourage don't represent the much greater weight of South Africa's racially and economically divided citizens. Clearly mindful of the potential power of symbols, Mandela is drawn to the country's hapless and frequently humiliated rugby team, the Springboks.

These sports stars, led by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), lack the greater experience that would have come from participation on the world stage: Because of apartheid, South African had been banned from international sporting events for years.

South Africa's black population hates the green-and-gold Springbok shirts, viewing these uniforms as symbols of apartheid; conversely, the country's white population embraces the team in the manner of all die-hard fans. Mandela forcefully talks the African National Congress out of banning the Springboks, and sets about building the rugby team into a symbol that might unite both halves of South Africa behind the shared goal of winning the 1995 World Cup.

Tall order.

Eastwood's film has an impressive aura of authenticity, and with good reason; considerable care has been taken with all the important details. We can assume that much of Freeman's dialogue has been shaded for droll or dramatic impact, as a given scene demands, but the production design and sports action are fine-tuned to actual events.

Former Springbok team member Chester Williams, the aforementioned sole black player back in 1995, served as coach for these onscreen rugby players. Damon spent time with Pienaar, and Eastwood obviously worked hard to make the rugby action look and sound real. (Remember the grim authenticity of the boxing action in Million Dollar Baby.) As a result, those unfamiliar with rugby are apt to be surprised by its level of raw brutality.

One element required some Hollywood trickery, though: Damon's size. At 5 feet 10 inches, Damon is neither as tall nor as physically imposing as the actual Pienaar and his mates were, but you'd never know that from this film. Properly bulked up to appear as though he belongs on a rugby field, Damon's relative size is very cleverly "cheated" by camera angles and savvy editing.

Although the film frequently grants Freeman's Mandela opportunities to insist upon the all-inclusiveness that he views as essential to national unity, Eastwood and Peckham take pains to avoid the uglier faction that must have objected to this new president, much the way less-enlightened racists in our own country reflexively wish the worst for Obama. (One cannot escape the comparison.)

That's a bit misleading, if not dishonest; judging by Invictus, we're led to believe that, for the most part, integration proceeded quite smoothly.

Nice thought.

The passage of time also is a bit vague. The film charts events that occur during an entire year  the 1995 World Cup took place between May 25 and June 4  but we never get a sense of so much time elapsing, during the 12-month ramp-up to the climax. The Springboks don't seem to play much, instead spending all their time with outreach and practice matches.

A few sidebar characters and issues don't get their proper measure, starting with Mandela's own dysfunctional family. This film assumes considerable knowledge on the viewer's part, when it comes to this great man's wife and children; those not well-versed in history will wonder what went so badly wrong.

Similarly, we never get a bead on Pienaar's fiancée, Nerine. Although Marguerite Wheatley plays her as properly loving and supportive, these feel like stage directions; her scenes with Damon are vexingly superficial. Damon develops a much stronger rapport with the various actors who play fellow Springbok players, which seems an undo slight to the woman who, in real life, became Pienaar's wife.

This is a massive story with a sweeping canvas of characters, and at times Eastwood's reach clearly exceeds his grasp.

Not that you'll likely notice. The Springboks were seeded ninth and able to participate in the 1995 World Cup only because it was hosted by South Africa. The South African team was expected to lose its first game, against the incumbent champions from Australia.

Events ... went a slightly different direction. And by the time the Springboks face the powerhouse New Zealand team  infamous for its intimidating, pre-game "Maori dance"  you'll probably be screaming just as hard as the 60,000 fans at the Ellis Park Stadium. (And goodness, but that stadium is huge!)

Part riveting history lesson, part underdog sports saga, Eastwood's handling of Invictus actually gets most of its juice from the many interactions between members of its large ensemble cast. This is a helluva story: one definitely belonging to the 'only in real life' file.

And it'll certainly be embraced by those who've long believed that sports competitions are the most important thing in life.

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