Invictus

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Over the past two decades, Clint Eastwood, soon to be 80, has become one of the most versatile, reliable and prolific directors in American cinema, a triple achievement that cannot be overestimated. With “Invictus,” Eastwood continues his explorations of humanistic populist themes, which bridge the personal with the political domains, resulting in socially relevant, emotionally engaging works.

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“Invictus” could be described as factual inspirational story of how president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) joined forces with the white captain of South Africa’s rugby team, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to help unite the country at a most crucial historical time, in 1995, upon being elected as chief, following 27 years spent in prison.

 
This is the third collaboration between director Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, arguably the most accomplished actor working in Hollywood today, following the 1992 Oscar-winning Western “Unforgiven,” in which the good secondary role belonged to Gene Hackman (as the vicious sheriff), and the 2004 “Million Dollar Baby,” for which Freeman deservedly won the Supporting Actor Oscar.  It’s good to see Freeman, who has recently been playing mostly supporting roles, assumes center-stage with an understated and charismatic performance that’s likely to win him another Oscar nomination, this time in the Best Actor league.
 
Unfortunately, co-star Matt Damon is shortchanged by the script, which allots him a crucial but passive part that doesn’t allow the gifted thespian to register strongly, because most of his interactions are initiated and conducted by Mandela. (This season, Damon is far more interesting and entertaining in Soderbergh’s “The Informant!” which I highly recommend).
 
Overall, “Invictus” is not as emotionally strong or as visually impressive as “Million Dollar Baby” or “Letters from Iwo Jima,” two Eastwood films that were cherished by film critics for their artistic and other merits. But it’s the kind of fare that Oscar voters like, a factual tale (even though it’s not a comprehensive biopicture of Mandela), which is both politically relevant in its particular elements and widely humanistic in its more general notes.
 
When the story begins, on Sunday, February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela is released from prison. In the wake of apartheid, South Africa is racially and economically divided, practically “on the verge of civil war,” as one TV reports states. But it’s also the first time, in which 23 million citizens can cast their votes freely.
Down to earth, as the leader of a new, troubled country, the future-oriented Mandela declares, “What’s past is past; we look to the future now.” To that extent, he put himself to work, starting with restructuring two of his most visible teams, his administrative staff and his personal bodyguards.   In his very first address, he asks the white members of his staff, who had served his predecessor, President de Klerk, to stay on in their jobs and to share a larger collective goal than their personal or political interests.
There is another group that’s important to Mandela’s dream of South Africa as a rainbow nation, his security guards. In a poignant and humorous scene, his new, black guards, led by Jason Tshabalala and Linga Moonsamy, realize that Mandela’s new edict also applies to them.  As a result, suddenly, they are asked to work side by side with the former, white members of the Special Branch, the very men who until very recently had threatened their freedom and abused their own race.
Most importantly, holding that he can bring his people together through sports, Mandela rallies South Africa’s underdog rugby team. It’s a major challenge, because, initially, the team is an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.
Anthony Peckham’s screenplay, based upon John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy,” is structured as a classic narrative, with a clear division into chapters or phases, all leading to a rousing finale, the big game itself, which occupies all of the last reel. 
 
That said, aiming to reach broad audiences that don’t know much about politics or sports (particularly rugby, which is different from soccer or football), the tale is not very complex and includes only a small number of fully-fleshed characters.  In other words, Eastwood must have realized that he has an extremely appealing story to tell and subsequently has decided to let the facts of the story speak for themselves, rather than impose on them a more elaborate structure and a more sophisticated visual design.
 
For example, Eastwood refuses to exploit the viewers’ emotional responses by dwelling on Mandela’s troubled past via obvious and prolonged flashbacks. When Captain Pienaar and his team visit the prison where Mandela had spent close to three decades of his life, the helmer shows in very brief snippets of Mandela as prisoner, images from the POV of Pienaar, who’s standing by the window.
 
Mandela’s philosophy of life and approach to politics are summed up in a speech, stating: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” This is not a lip service; he actually believes in it. When challenged about his set of priorities, Mandela makes a good case for his humanistic approach to what could be described as the politics of co-existence and integration.

 
According to the film, from the beginning, Mandela perceived his primary role as a mediator, reconciling the two factions of his country, by reaching for a larger shared collective goal, expressed in the motto, “One team, one country.” 
 
It’s noteworthy, that the members of South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks, led by Francois Pienaar, are mostly white. There is only one black member, Chester Williams (played by McCreary), who, despite his wish “to just play rugby,” becomes by necessity a symbolic figure. Ironically, later in the story, due to injury, Chester is unable to play in one crucial game. (The real-life Williams served as a coach for the onscreen rugby players).
 
In one crucial scene, Mandela calls upon Pienaar to lead his team to greatness, citing a poem that served as a source of inspiration and strength to him during his many years in prison. Written by William Ernest Henley, the poem is “Invictus,” which in translation means “unconquered.” However, in the course of the film, the poem assumes different, broader meanings, which go beyond the description of one character.
“Invictus” was shot entirely on location in and around the cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa. On this production, Eastwood has employed many of his longtime collaborators, including director of photography Tom Stern, production designer James J. Murakami, editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, and costume designer Deborah Hopper. The music is by Kyle Eastwood (Clint’s son) and Michael Stevens.
 
Some critics may deem “Invictus” an old-fashioned picture due to its functional visual design and utter reliance on the storytelling.  Indeed, all the film’s elements, including the actors and the technical properties, are serviceable, that is, promote the linear progression of the tale until it reaches its exciting finale.
 
Nothing in the film is overstated in order to achieve cheap emotional effects, and Eastwood continues to show that he is one of the “cleanest,” least manipulative and calculating director working today. I can only speculate about the kind of biopicture he would have made out of the life another noble hero, Gandhi. (I have strong reservations over Richard Attenborough’s screen version, which swept the 1982 Oscars, including Best Picture).
 
Nonetheless, one elements stands out and deserves special mentioning: the charismatic performance rendered by Morgan Freeman, who was chosen by Mandela himself to embody his life.  Though he has clearly studied the leader’s rhythm of walk and vocal quality (his accent and manner of delivery), Freeman, one of the least mannered actors around, does not do an impersonation of Mandela.  Instead, he turns in an understated, fully fleshed performance that perfectly fits into Eastwood’s overall conception.  Freeman’s work consists of many small details, manifest in his individual speeches and interactions with his entourage, which result in undeniably cumulative power.
 
End note:
 
Invictus: The Poem
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

Cast

Nelson Mandela – Morgan Freeman
Francois Pienaar – Matt Damon
Jason Tshabalala – Tony Kgoroge
Etienne Feyder – Julian Lewis Jones
Brenda Mazibuko – Adjoa Andoh
Linga Moonsamy – Patrick Mofokeng
Hendrick Booyens – Matt Stern
Mary – Leleti Khumalo
 

Credits

Warner release presented in association with Spyglass Entertainment of a Revelations Entertainment/Mace Neufeld and Malpaso production.

Produced by Clint Eastwood, Lori McCreary, Robert Lorenz, Neufeld.

Executive producers, Morgan Freeman, Tim Moore, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum. Directed by Clint Eastwood.

Screenplay, Anthony Peckham, based on the book “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin.
Camera, Tom Stern.

Editors, Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach.

Music, Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens.

Production designer, James J. Murakami; supervising art director, Tom Hannam; art director, Jonathan Hely-Hutchinson; set decorator, Leon van der Merwe.

Costume designer, Deborah Hopper.

Sound, Walt Martin; supervising sound editors, Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman; sound designer, David Farmer; re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff.

Visual effects supervisor, Michael Owens; visual effects, CIS Visual Effects Group.

Assistant director, Donald Murphy.

Casting, Fiona Weir.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.

Running time: 133 Minutes.

Eastwood and his writer make it clear that, to the rest of the world, the 1995 World Cup Final was just a footnote, no more than a potentially thrilling rugby match. However, to the people of South Africa, it was a turning point in history, a shared experience that helped heal the wounds of the past, while giving new hope for the future.

What could have been in the hands of another director a schmaltzy, predictable, uplifting, and noble entertainment, is under Eastwood’s helm a straight (and straightforward), understated, and subtle tale of a shrewd, charismatic politician, who understood the universal language of sports and poetry ands their roles as instrumental tools in reuniting his country. Pop culture, art works, and leisure activities are contrasted with the more controversial and divisive power of ideas, messages, and speeches, all of which are contained in moderation in the film.