Invictus (Warner Bros. Pictures, PG-13)

film_invictus_sm.jpgEastwood turns a relevant political movie into a subpar Friday Night Lights.

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It’s hard to take any movie featuring a newly elected, forward-thinking, dark-skinned president at face value these days, even if said film is based on a true story, not our own. The new Clint Eastwood picture, Invictus, follows Nelson Mandela in his early days as South Africa’s elected leader (circa 1994), but the themes of political and racial tolerance could just as easily be applied to an Obama biopic.

While on the whole I agree with Invictus‘ arguments, I don’t much care for the method the film uses. Namely, it’s a sports movie. Granted, this is all fact; it’s not like some screenwriter somewhere decided to fabricate a sports-as-politics allegory. Still, the focus of Invictus is Mandela’s early goal to get South Africans to supports their national rugby team, the Springboks, and for the Springboks to win the Rugby World Cup. This gives Eastwood the leeway to turn a relevant political movie into a subpar Friday Night Lights.

Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman, a favorite of mine (and of Eastwood’s; let’s not forget that he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Clint’s Million Dollar Baby, and has appeared in countless other Eastwood films), but in Invictus he lets Mandela’s accent come and go, and really, not much aside from the accent is required of him as an actor in the first place. Playing opposite Mandela as François Pienaar, the leader of the Springboks, is Matt Damon, another reliably good actor. Damon fares better than Freeman — at least he’s not constantly dropping his accent — but his role is underwritten, too (blame the script by Anthony Peckham, who is also a co-writer on this month’s Sherlock Holmes). As depicted by the film, Pienaar is devoid of personality, and can barely even be bothered to produce the obligatory rousing speech before the big game. And aside from my admiration for Freeman and Damon in the general sense, could Eastwood and casting director Fiona Weir really not find South Africans to play these roles? We know good South African actors exist (see Tsotsi or Charlize Theron for evidence). Did we really need American celebrities playing historically important African figures? (The vast majority of the supporting cast is appropriate in their ethnicity, for what it’s worth.)

Although I appreciate the film not insulting its audience’s intelligence by holding our hand through both South African history or the rules of rugby (you don’t get any title cards or heavy-handed narration here), this very trait might make the film hard to get into for a lot of its potential audience. The South African political scene of the time can be picked up quickly enough, but I’m not sure how well even sports nuts will be able to follow the (many) rugby scenes; I sure didn’t know what was going on. Even if I had, I still wouldn’t have liked the film; at 134 minutes, it seems like very little happens, and while its message is both good and timely, it gets lost in poor characterization, lack of drama, or really pretty much anything else that is remotely redeemable. | Pete Timmermann

 

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