Friday, May 11, 2012

Invictus (2009)

"I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul."

- The western genre.... Dirty Harry.... The last things usually associated with Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood are South African politics and rugby. Yet Eastwood present both unusually paired elements together in the impressive inspirational 2009 film Invictus about South African President Nelson Mandela and national rugby team the Springboks.

The events of the story begin at the end of the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the election of Nelson Mandela. Despite the extension of suffrage in South Africa, racial tensions remained high between the black and white populations. Unity was essential if South Africa was to endure and, in the face of opposition, President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) looks to the nation's ruby team, the Springboks, and their Captain Fran├žois Pienaar (Matt Damon) for an unlikely source of national identity.

Invictus is not one of Clint Eastwood's finest films but it is undoubtedly, in my view, a quality film. Eastwood (with fellow cohort, cinematographer Ton Stern) exercises his signature keen eye for visuals and professionally assembles the affecting story into a nicely flowing final product. However, Invictus does lack a certain power in the way the narrative unfolds. The viewer gets a great sense of the pickle that Mandela finds himself in (thanks to both Eastwood's direction and Morgan Freeman's performance) but seldom do events in the plot come to a head and the ending is particularly anti-climactic. Also, the practical deification of Mandela is very noticeable and a bit troubling from a historical perspective. Mandela was an important and interesting man but he had his imperfections as everyone does; hell, the film forgets that Mandela was imprisoned for his involvement with armed insurrections that killed innocent civilians! Finally, a rare, puzzling misstep for Eastwood in this film is the inclusion of a few corny and overbearing music montages. I still cannot believe that those lousy scenes made it into a Clint Eastwood film.

Both of the film's stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances as President Mandela and Francois Pienaar, respectively, and, for my money, were the highlight of the film. While I could name other actors that I feel gave better performances during the 2009 film year, it is clear to me that both Freeman and Damon each perform their characters at career-high levels. It seems to me that Matt Damon is only impressive when working for truly great directors like Martin Scorsese (in The Departed (2006)), the Coen Brothers (in True Grit (2010)), Steven Soderbergh (in a number of films; most notably The Informant! (2009) and the Ocean's Trilogy) or Clint Eastwood in Hereafter (2010) and here in Invictus. More than most, Eastwood seems to be especially adept at repressing Damon's inner unbearable leading man and harnessing the man's true talent for character acting. Damon is quiet and subdued in Invictus as the focused Pienaar to great effect.

I am often critical of Hollywood actors playing very recognizable real-life people. More often than not, actors seem to be doing impressions rather than creating a character with their performances of historical figures in Hollywood biopics. Such performances tend to be hammy and pivot on exaggerated recognizable traits in their characters that hint that they are simply doing it all in a desperate attempt to win awards and impress on a superficial level (look how much I act like so-and-so, I bet you can't tell it's me!!). It take a very special actor and performance to impress me in this way (such as Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin (1992) or Liam Neeson in Michael Collins (1996)). However, I found Morgan Freeman's performance of Nelson Mandela to be quite good. Freeman resembles Mandela greatly but also simply creates a very sympathetic character; his subtle, distinguished and authentic authority playing well to the calm wisdom of the determined peacemaker. And despite Mandela's portrayal as a deity to a certain extent in Invictus, it is certainly not carried out through the individual efforts of Morgan Freeman.

Although I do not rank Invictus among the very best of Eastwood's remarkable filmography, I do find it to be a well-made and entertaining film. Invictus has some small problems when it comes to pacing, narrative, historical and filmmaking choice aspects that add up to significantly detract from the overall experience. However, Eastwood is a master at the craft of filmmaking and none of his films can be overlooked, let alone Invictus with the strong sense of visual style and unique atmosphere; and, of course, Morgan Freeman's career highlight performance of Nelson Mandela is another obvious incentive to see this film.

CBC Rating: 7/10

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