Monday, June 7, 2010

Lost Moment: Clint Eastwood's Invictus (2009)

There just wasn't enough time. When Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, he was already 76 years old. After spending 27 years in an apartheid prison on Robben Island, few would have condemned him for seeking a measure of justice, if not outright revenge, for his treatment at the hands of South Africa's whites. Instead he chose a higher road. He wanted to reconcile with the white South Africans in an effort to end the cycle of violence that could have easily continued when the apartheid regime finally collapsed in 1994.

When he became President, he accomplished many things, especially trying to bring peace to his fractured country. It was as simple as using both black and white bodyguards (that integration itself spoke volumes to the nation), and as complex as embracing South Africa's national rugby team, the Springboks -- a team that was a symbol of white rule in South Africa -- on the cusp of South Africa hosting the Rugby World Cup in 1995. The Springboks were a woeful team that everybody assumed would make an early exit from the tournament. For Mandela, the success of the team became a personal mission. He contacted the team's captain, Francois Pienaar, and encouraged him to win the World Cup for South Africa. It was a tall order. With the assistance of a new coach, Pienaar's drive, and Mandela's complete support, the Springboks trained like demons and, remarkably, went on to win the title. Both these decisions were symbols, nothing more, but they were symbols of what can come out of hope.This is the material that is covered in Clint Eastwood's flawed film, Invictus (latin for 'unconquered') and it is a matter of historical record.

What I meant earlier by saying that there wasn't enough time was that, with South Africa still filled with strife and violence today, Mandela was unable to complete what he started when he stepped down as President in 1999. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, may have helped build international trade and improve employment for some in South Africa, but as a reconciler he was a disaster. If anybody white criticized his government, legitimately or not, he condemned them as racists. His views on AIDS led to the increased spread of the disease in Africa, and his 'quiet diplomacy' in Zimbabwe was sited as one of the reasons for the continued violence in that country. Whether Jacob Zuma, President since 2009, will be any better only time will tell. In that moment in 1995, South Africa's victory in the Rugby World Cup seemed to suggest a world of possibilities. Mandela did not have enough time to institute everything he planned before age and ill health forced him to retire. The film tries to show 'wow, look what he did to bring his country together', but as of 2010, it is yet to be. Therefore, there's a whiff of nostalgia and wish-fulfillment to the film that isn't true to the current reality.

Invictus is a great idea for a film, but one of Eastwood's failings as a director is that he tends to work very quickly. As a result, Invictus feels rushed, not just in its storytelling, but in its construction. When it was released at Christmas last year, critics charged that he was unable to shoot the rugby scenes with any authenticity to give it a visual charge. Maybe. But having watched some rugby in my time, Eastwood makes a game that is mostly incomprehensible to North Americans clear, if you pay attention. There are other problems -- such as screwing up the finale of the contest due to confusion around how much time was left at the end -- but the biggest issue is the film's overall visual blandness and workman-like editing style. South Africa is a gorgeous country, and yet except for a few establishing shots of Cape Town, you wouldn't know it from this movie.

Eastwood's decisions on edits (he talks, the other guy talks, wide shot, he talks, the other guy talks) shows not only dull cutting, but also uninteresting set ups. Morgan Freeman is good as Mandela, capturing his walk and the cadence of his speaking voice, while a bulked-up Matt Damon is passable as Francois Pianeer, but few of the other cast members resonate (save for Mandela's head of security, played with a combination of exacerbation and restraint by Tony Kgoroge). This blandness in filmmaking makes the supporting cast fade into the wallpaper. There is a potentially great sequence in this film, when the team visits the prison on Robben Island, but even it has its cheeseball visual moments. This is a film that should have had us in the palm of its hand, especially during the final game, and occasionally it does, but not enough for such an exciting story. An exciting story that is about to continue?

The world's spotlight is now once again on South Africa for a sporting event: the 2010 World Cup (of Football in most of the world, of Soccer in Canada and the US). Once again, South Africa is looking like a pre-tournament also-ran. But once again, the star of the team is someone named Pienaar, Steven Pienaar (no relation to Francois), a mid-fielder for the South African team. Mandela, at 91, is rumoured to be attending, as he did the Springboks' first game in 1995. Can unexpected lightning strike twice? The big brains say no, but football, like rugby, is a funny game. Let's see if Mandela's dream can now pick up where it left off and make South Africa into the country he always dreamed it could be.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and writer. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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