Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie Perspective: Invictus

Is it a Nelson Mandela movie? Is it a rugby movie? No. It's a human movie.

The only things Clint Eastwood's latest has in common with his other recent movies (Gran Torino, Changeling, Letters from Iwo Jima / Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River) is quality.

The movie, based on the novel Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation by John Carlin, paints a portrait of the cultural upheaval in South Africa in the early 1990s. It begins with a startlingly well conceived scene contrasting the two populations sharing the country. As Mandela is driven through his country, just released from prison, the black children play soccer in rags on one side of the street, while the whites practice rugby in uniform on the other. "Remember this is your country went to the dogs," the white coach tells his players.

I remember these events to a degree, from my youth. Taking place when I was ten or eleven, apartheid was explained to me, and my young mind couldn't wrap itself around the idea. What sort of people could allow such a system to take place? Yes, the U.S. has slavery in its past, but to me, at that age, it all seemed so long ago. I was shocked that this sort of thinking still existed in the world that I lived in.

Eastwood uses rugby as an effective storytelling device, demonstrating the tightrope that Mandela was forced to walk after he became president. Morgan Freeman's performance, per usual, is top notch as Mandela, who must persuade his people, to embrace the country's rugby team, Springbok, which they all hold as a symbol, down to the mere colors the team wears, of their oppression. In order to save his country, Freeman's Mandela must help his people to balance on a razors edge between justice and revenge.

Mandela works with Springbok coach/player Francois Pienaar, deftly played by Matt Damon, to find a way to overcome odds to win the 1995 rugby World Cup. A victory in the tournament, which was held in South Africa, could unite black and white in a way that few other accomplishments could. Mandela must inspire Pienaar to rally and overcome not only the cultural mores of the mostly white team, but their seeming lack of skill.

Other ideas explored were Mandela's own difficulty dealing with his estrangement from his family. The dichotomy of his ability to overcome the obstacles of integrating two people so untrusting of each other, with his inability to unite is family provides an interesting back drop. Furthermore, the integration, and later friendship, among the black and white presidential security detail is an entertaining underscore.

If I allowed myself one complaint, I suppose that I could have done without a few of the slow-motion-men-grunting-in-the-scrum scenes that portrayed the World Cup finals, but that would be nitpicking at the harshest. Invictus was a movie that informs while entertaining, keeping this viewer, with very little understanding of rugby fully engaged throughout. It has inspired me to learn more about the events as they took place, and is an moving tale of the unifying power of sport.

Rated 4, Recommended

Scale: 1 - Awful, 2 - Substandard, 3 - Average, 4 - Recommended, 5 - Must See

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