Friday, March 18, 2011

Invictus

What to say of a film that is based on an inspiring true story, yet is strangely uninspiring itself? There are several, especially well-meaning films like THE END OF THE SPEAR that espouse very positive messages and intentions yet end up as dramatically interesting as a few hours of C-SPAN. Well, maybe that's a bad example.

Director Clint Eastwood's INVICTUS follows the events in Johannesburg, South Africa after activist Nelson Mandela's long prison sentence. Nearly 30 years. He is elected President four years later and immediately seeks to mend fences between the oppressed blacks and the whites who held them down. His efforts begin in his own office as he convinces staffers with one foot out the door to reconsider and work with him towards that end. He will even hire white bodyguards, much to the shock and dismay of his current, black protectors who understandably worry about the new hires' trustworthiness.

But there's nothing like obsessiveness about a sporting event to rally the country. Mandela realizes early on that if his citizens can unify in their shared devotion to a rugby team, they may well co-exist in everyday life, perhaps even on the road to freedom from hate and suspicion (hasn't exactly worked in U.S. cities but check back..) Unfortunately, the Springbok team has been stinking up the field of late. Many locals even root against them. Further intrigue: factions want to retire the Springbok name and team colors as they represent years of apartheid. Mandela will show up at a town meeting and convince the citizens to keep the name, to take it back, in one of his many disarming, convincing orations. A true politican.

Also, a great man. Morgan Freeman, needless to say, entirely inhabits the much beloved figure. He not only ressembles him physically, but captures his soothing yet firm demeanor. It's some of the most pefect casting ever. Mandela recognized an avenue for harmony and fostered it, encouraged it. He meets Springbok captainFrancois Pienaar (Matt Damon), eventually revealing his hopes that a winning team can engender a united nation. He'll also share William Ernst Henley's poem, "Invictus", with the young man, stating that the power of its words kept him going all those years in a tiny prison cell (which Pienaar will eventually visit). The film will conclude with the Big Game. No medals will be given to any viewers who guess the outcome.

INVICTUS is a workmanlike meat-and-potatoes drama that is satisfying to its core. We'll watch decent men who love their families and country Do The Right Thing. Sports films (and real life games) usually work on our seemingly innate desires to watch competitive prowess overcome some obstacle, be it a player's handicap, a hissable opponent, or even racism. By the end of this movie, those previously uncommunicative bodyguards of different skin will bond not only over their mutual fanship for the team, but they'll even start their own game on the lawn!

I'm not complaining. This is such a well made entertainment that it is a pleasure to watch. Eastwood wisely does not contrive any unnecessary subplots or attempt to shoehorn a villain or succumb to piousness. I was impressed by that, what was left out. But INVICTUS remains coolly uninspiring, predictable. Perhaps like a reliable old pair of jeans.

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