Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon. Political/sports drama. Written by Anthony Peckham. Directed by Clint Eastwood.
FILM SYNOPSIS: The film tells the true story of how Nelson Mandela joined forces with the captain of South Africa’s rugby team, Francois Pienaar, to help unite their country. Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa’s underdog rugby team as they make an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.
PREVIEW REVIEW: Throughout Hollywood’s history, filmmakers have played fast and lose with facts in order to get a point across. The Birdman of Alcatraz springs to mind. You’d think the way Burt Lancaster played murderer/bird authority Robert Stroud that he was a good man who didn’t deserve to be in prison. And when it comes to George Armstrong Custer, well, Hollywood went hot and cold with him. They Died With Their Boots On in 1941 was pro-Custer. From then on, the Indian fighter became a caricature, representing America’s aggression. He would nevermore be portrayed from the perspective of his day, but rather be used as a cinematic sacrificial lamb, symbolically portrayed in media art forms as all that’s wrong with America. But if you watch that film, it is apparent that it is pro-Native-American. Errol Flynn played Custer as a man who respected the Indians and hated injustice toward them. At film’s end, positive changes were made in how the Native-American was to be treated. While They Died With Their Boots On strayed from reality, the production and its score are superb. And in the end, justice is served. Which leads me to Invictus.
A story not fully realized, Invictus comes short as great storytelling, yet leaves us with an understanding that we need to come together, overriding partisan politics in order to save a nation. When we put aside prejudice in order to accomplish a higher goal, those working together eventually see in all mankind what God sees.
I do have problems with Mr. Eastwood’s film. First, it’s hard getting past the term given to Nelson Mandela, “Comrade President.” I hear comrade and I think communist. That’s still a dirty word to me, because communism is an ideology that excludes the Deity, and its very nature is cancerous to a democracy.
While I am one of the few involved in the Hollywood industry who doesn’t claim to know everything about world politics, I felt manipulated throughout. Hollywood is usually restrained when it comes to portraying politicians as saintly, yet Mr. Eastwood and company stand in awe of their central character. I never felt I was getting to know a man or his country. I just felt I was being given a civics lesson from Spike Lee. At one point, Comrade President Mandela says to the rugby player, “Thank you, for what you’ve done for our country.” Matt Damon, replete with a blond Hitler youth movement hairdo, responds, “No, Mr. President, thank you for what you are doing for our country.” For a minute, I thought I was supposed to salute.
Each white South African is portrayed as a hater or one that becomes a decent sort once he is made to see the light by the more reflective black South Africans. Well, I don’t really have a problem with that. It took whites in America awhile to realize that all men, including African-Americans and Native-Americans and whoever else had a hyphen in their self-description were deserving of equality. It does seem, though, that one side of the story is being presented and each black character is noble, while each white is basically a schoolyard bully. In reality, I suspect that the ratio of nobility between the races is somewhat more balanced. But again, I don’t really have a problem with the lessons aimed at whites. Perhaps it is our time to learn and to rise above our human frailties. In the film, Mandela is a man who puts aside his anger and witnesses the need for forgiveness in order for a nation to prosper. Not a bad theme for a movie.
Let me come back to the reverential treatment of Comrade Mandela, for a moment. Why was he in prison? Never really stated. His wife was sent to prison for corruption, but this is never stated. Why is he estranged from his children? Also never stated. Hey, I don’t want to take away from his sainthood if indeed Mr. Mandela deserves the pedestal position, but is the South African leader really deserving of that status? What is the state of South Africa and has Mr. Mandela’s regime really risen above corruption and politics as usual? The film strays from those questions, giving this viewer the impression that the filmmaker’s agenda was more about propaganda than reality.
Nelson Mandela is reported to have clung to the words of William Ernest Henley’s poem, Invictus, which contained such lines as:
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul
…I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
A moving sentiment, but the poem’s tone is somewhat humanistic. While Nelson Mandela may have recited those verses in an effort to deal with despair during his years of incarceration, I am far more taken with the words of Corrie Ten Boom, who, after being imprisoned by the Nazis for aiding Jews during WWII, declared, “There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.” That signaled that God was the master of her soul.
In the film, we are to believe that Mandela wanted to see the rugby team win because he felt it would unite his people and bring the country to the eyes of the world. I’m sure that was true, but every meeting the President has in the film, no matter its importance, is interrupted by messages of the rugby team’s progress. We never really see what changes are being made, what progress has occurred due to Mandela’s leadership.
Morgan Freeman is my favorite actor of this generation, but here his portrayal is more two-dimensional than a fully realized performance. And though Matt Damon got all muscled up for his athletic role and affects a convincing accent, his pensive character is conceptualized by little more than the furrow of his brow.
Mr. Eastwood takes it for granted that we the audience are all world historians. I’m having a hard enough time keeping up with America’s upheaval, so if you are going to dramatize how great a leader of another nation is, give me more than a sports victory.