' Cinema Romantico: Invictus

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Invictus

I cannot imagine Barack Obama has normal conversations anymore. Undoubtedly he was a master conversationalist at one time in his life but once you become President of the United States the ability to converse on a typical level must get stripped away. I imagine Barack and Michelle ending up in the White House kitchen at 3 in the morning and Michelle saying they should each have a hot fudge sundae and then Barack saying something like, "Until all Americans have hot fudge sundaes made available to them on a whim, I would be remiss in having one myself." Then Michelle rolls her eyes and thinks wistfully back to the days of their courtship when Barack didn't speak strictly in soundbites.

How do you make a movie when Nelson Mandela is your main character? He can't possibly talk like a normal person, can he? He can't chit chat about the weather or wonder where one gets a decent bison burger in Cape Town. The man isn't just noble, he is nobility. We know how the story of "Invictus" will end and we know Mandela's plight and how it defies human comprehension and so we know with a character like this there cannot be a lot of complexity or surprises. When you portray a real-life person of this magnitude all the rules change. Who knows, maybe this is how a President of a nation talks. When you have to be on all the time I suppose normal communication becomes nearly impossible. It's why Morgan Freeman does such a damn good job in the role. He never makes you feel as if you are just watching a movie about a deity.

"Invictus", taken from the title of a poem that kept Mandela company in his unforgiving cell all those years, tells the story of the 1995 World Cup for rugby which the new South African President used as a platform to unite his nation - to encourage whites and blacks alike to cheer for the national rugby team, the Springboks, as they were known. The film makes many references to this delicate line between the two races, most explicitly in the subplot involving Mandela's security team. Everyone seems expectant of the new President carrying out some sort of vendetta but he is insistent this cannot be the case and that forgiveness must be offered to all. I could not help but drift back to my favorite line of Obama's acceptance speech a year ago: "I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too."

The Captain of the rugby squad, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), becomes Mandela's ally in the quest to not only attempt what seems impossible and win the world cup but to also hold up the Springboks as a symbol for all. His family life is sketched only briefly. The circumstances on the field and in the locker room take precedence, as they must in this sort of film. Nor does he address politics. The game rises above all.

Eastwood's famous economical style both helps and hinders the film. Make no mistake, the primary narrative of "Invictus" is the Rugby World Cup and upon entering this terrain sweeping gestures and inflated drama and a soundtrack that provides obvious cues often win the day. Occassionally these devices crop up (particularly in one wretched, though brief, thankfully, montage where a song called "Colorblind" is employed - oh, is that the message?) but not as often as one might expect. Many of the scenes involving Mandela are played matter-of-factly without unecessary adornment and this works to add a layer of believability.

But his style also wreaks havoc with the all important rugby scenes. All sense of drama and timing in the matches seem off. In the first match, for example, the score is never referenced and before you even have time to get excited or even really know what's going on it's ended. How in the world did it get there? What's going on? I myself know little about rugby and it would seem Eastwood doesn't know much more than me. (There is one line of dialogue where Mandela repeats what an aid has already stated: "So it is very important we beat Australia?" Got that, audience? It is very important they beat Australia.) We get little to no insights into the particulars of the game and none of Pienaar's teammates have personalities - not even bland and one dimensional personalities. I didn't feel much of anything during the ultimate championship clash and why would I? In some ways the film makes it seem Mandela conjured up the national rugby team out of thin air.

Even so the film offers a semi-persuasive argument for how nations - as cliched as it sounds - have to work together and, to put it pointedly, stop whining. Your candidate didn't win? I'm sorry, truly, I am, but now maybe it's time to cease pointing fingers, suck it up and get on with it. I hope people take that away from "Invictus". I really do.

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