Wednesday, December 16, 2009
INVICTUS (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2009)
Like a huge signpost that announces: "It's now officially Oscar season", a new Clint Eastwood directed movie has opened at this time almost every year this last decade.
Eastwood makes the kind of film that Academy voters love - event films with A-list actors about important issues; movies that make movie goers feel guilty if they try not to pay attention to them.
For they're noble works with an old school sentimentality, but ultimately they're to be admired more than enjoyed. Such is the case with INVICTUS, a historical sports drama centering on Nelson Mandela's rugby obsessed first term as President of South Africa.
Oddly, Morgan Freeman as Mandela is an almost too obvious piece of casting. It never quite works, it's like Dustin Hoffman playing Lenny Bruce - the images of both are too well known separately for them to blend into a natural personification.
We're always aware that it's Freeman doing his wizened Freeman thing; except for a tint of an accent, it's the same basic performance as a President that he did in DEEP IMPACT. Mandela faces an intimidating workload upon taking office in 1994, with long brewing racial tensions, poverty, and crime filling the streets. He comes to believes that a World Cup win by the Springboks, the country's rugby team, will unite the nation and lead them into a new era.
Mandela meets with the team Captain (a reserved and in a "respect your elders" mode Matt Damon) to fan the flames of inspiration. He shares a poem with Damon that helped him through years of inprisonment - "Invictus" written by William Earnest Henley. This, of course, is the film's title so I was a bit taken aback to find out that in reality Mandela actually gave the Captain a copy of a Theodore Roosevelt speech.
That's just one of many details many fact checkers will have problems with here. Eastwood undoubtedly subscribes to John Ford's infamous stance: "Print the legend" and that's an honorable tact to take but this strained un-involving film does little but to pile on the platitudes.
By the time we get to the big climatic game filled with all the sports movie clichés you can think of (slow motion, strained close-ups, crowd elation manipulation, etc.) it didn't matter to me whether or not the outcome will bring the country together or have any spiritual impact at all - my eyes were too glazed over to care.
Whatever the historical relevance, INVICTUS is an admirable exercise with pure intentions, fine performances, and seasoned craftmanship, but sadly a very dull film.