Sunday, March 3, 2013

Invictus (2009)

Years ago, Clint Eastwood produced a cinematic feat and, for many years to come, sustained the significance of that feat. He developed a gruff, intimidating persona with a barely audible yet nerve-tingling dialect and, as always, that freaking cigarette. This is a persona that is as well known as the American Flag and has been the subject of many tributes and comedic monologues. If you don’t believe me, how many times have you impersonated Clint Eastwood or used the phrase, “Do ya feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” And don’t you dare say that you haven’t because you have. You know you have!

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. I’m sure you all are wondering, “Well, what’s the feat in developing a persona? Many actors can do that.” Well, actually the feat lies in his directorial credits. The viewer is left with a concrete, preconceived impression of him after watching him as an actor and then after you look at his directorial credits, you thoughts are summed up in one word: Damn! Who would’ve known that Dirty Harry could’ve made such sweeping, sad, fascinating, and occasionally comedic films?

I think he gained more variety and reverence as a director during the 2000s. This was the decade when he directed Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, and the Academy Award winner of 2004, Million Dollar Baby. So, since Clint Eastwood is making all these acclaimed films of cosmic vision and gut-wrenching drama, he deserves a film where his ideas can be executed in a way that’s visually gargantuan and yet narratively humble. Enter Invictus.

The film revolves around the post-apartheid era in South Africa. The hierarchy was so extreme that whites and blacks played their own, fitting sport, which were rugby and soccer, respectively. But now, former prisoner Nelson Mandela is the South African president and South Africa is doing everything they can to get the message across that the actions that were partaken in during apartheid were wrong. One of these objectives is to eliminate the South African rugby team, the Springboks. The Springboks, whose captain is Francois Pienaar, were previously not allowed to bring in black players and their colors were green and yellow, which were the colors associated with the apartheid era. It also doesn’t help that they are currently on a losing streak. However, Mandela sees hope in them, calls for the overturn of the Springbok boycott, and inspires the team to work hard and earn the World Cup as a way of uniting South Africa.

Surprisingly enough, while Clint Eastwood directed the film, Anthony Peckham penned it. He previously wrote Don’t Say a Word and went on to write the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film. While I can’t offer my critique on those films, I will say that he has crafted a witty, winning screenplay for this film. There are many scenes that permeate into the brain and stay stuck in there. There is a scene where the Springboks teach the black South African kids, who were born on soccer, how to play rugby that is charming and reveals the actors’ brilliant abilities to work with kids.

But one scene that particularly stood out to me was when the Springboks tour Mendela’s jail cell. While it is an inevitable moment, given the scenes of the Mandela/Pienaar dynamic, it is also plaintive and revealing. All Mandela wanted was a change and he was convicted because of it. It shows that the Springboks have to win the World Cup to convey that blacks are equal to whites.

The performances are certainly persuasive. Morgan Freeman always brings a commanding yet cuddly presence to every role and his role in this film, as Nelson Mandela, is no different. He is most certainly convincing as Mandela with a thick South African accent. Matt Damon, when he gets screen time (this will soon be discussed), is cogent as Pienaar. With his South African accent, Matt Damon officially makes the list of Pretty Boy Actors Who Can Really Act (the list includes him, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, and a few others I am most surely forgetting). Yes, this film certainly has all of the qualities of a great film: the delightful screenplay, the earnest performances, the fact that they show the actual rugby team in the credits, and, need we forget, the cinematography that is expansive, clear, and cloaks itself in toned-down hues.

This sounds like it should be a great epic film. Unfortunately, it falters it two areas: structure and storytelling. For a film about the aftermath of an unpleasant moment in time, it feels safe and plasticized. The inspirational speeches are forced, clichéd, and minorly embarrassing. The teammates are shallowly written caricatures. They’re douchebags and then they’re supportive. The originality and depth is just overwhelming.

Also, as much as I adore Freeman’s performance, it annoys me how Mandela is used as a pawn in a trivial Cinderella story. There’s one moment at the end where he’s used in a pseudo-inspirational fashion. I won’t reveal anything, but I will say that, even though it really happened, the way the film handles it is disgustingly saccharine. Another flaw is that some scenes (the “looking out at the empty stadium while introspective or inspiration talk ensues” scene, the “many places watching the same event on television with many people hanging on every moment” scene) are obviously clichéd, but the film is so self-consciously epic that it feels that the filmmakers forgot that these scenes have been used in thousands of other films.

Did I mention that the structure of the film fails? By this, I mean that the film doesn’t know what it wants to be? What is the focus? Is it about Mandela? Is it about the Springboks? I don’t know. I’m guessing it’s about both, but when they are amalgamated, it feels like two different films. It doesn’t click. It clashes. Even worse, the first half offers no legit balance between Freeman and Damon. Damon is painfully underused, to the point that the Oscars nominated him under the category of SUPPORTING ACTOR! He’s the second name on the poster, for Christ’s sake!

For a film of this plotline, the “big game” is inescapable. Oddly enough, it is preceded by a chant/dance of the opponents that feels like the writer of Stomp the Yard hijacked the script. When it does happen, it is palpable albeit predictable. However, one thing nearly ruins that scene: SLOW MOTION! Usually, in a “big game” moment, slow motion is used when the protagonists make the winning point. Here, it is used when the Springboks start to take the lead and continues for 10 freaking minutes, at least! It starts to get old after about two minutes. Think about that! 10 minutes of slow-mo, including that distinct audio that starts to sound like the Hulk dubbed this film.

Overall, it’s not a bad film. It just could’ve been so much better! The performances are amazing, the camerawork is competent, and the screenplay can be pretty charming. However, the habitual and labored moments, the lack of focus and cohesive structure, and the safety of it all nearly suffocate it. It feels sanitized. However, sanitized products can be pleasant, as is the case with this film. The good qualities are so incredibly good that I can let it slide. In conclusion, on a scale of zero to four stars, I’d give this film an enthusiastic 3 stars!

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