Sunday, December 13, 2009


Let us not waste time declaring that Clint Eastwood's latest film is "a sports movie that isn't really about sports." No sports movie is really about sports, save for ESPN documentaries: even underdog stories, the most common type of film to involve sports and the one that focuses most heavily on the game in question, use sports to comment upon an individual or team learning dedication and humanity through the game and linking characters to the world through the thrill they get from playing.

Invictus, adapted from John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation by Anthony Peckham, is not only an underdog sports movie but a sports film about national pride and unity, a sort of racially tinged iteration of Miracle. I must confess that I'm never at odds with the critical consensus more than when the new Clint Eastwood movie makes its way into theaters (which is often, since the director, almost an octogenarian, is one of the most prolific mainstream filmmakers working today): even without any formal knowledge of visual compositions, I recognize his formidable skill with a camera, but I find the scripts he turns into movies often cinematically conservative, self-serving awards bait (how funny it is, that the man revered for his iconoclast image is the most Oscar-baiting director of the decade). And while a critic must clear his or her mind of expectations the second the lights come down, I couldn't help but worry that this would be yet another play for gold when I first sat down.

It's an opinion that isn't entirely unjustified. Set in South Africa in the lead-up to the 1995 World Cup, Invictus is often on-the-nose about the racial politics sweeping the nation in the wake of the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), and the inspirational music cues are practically retch-inducing. Happily, most of the moments where it does overplay its hand were all placed in the film's trailer, softening their eye-rolling impact. What Eastwood does here, what he's failed to do in his last few ventures, is use his camerawork and his skilled hand at coaching actors into making the larger social statements of Invictus secondary to our emotional response to the story. Unlike, say, Precious, which shamelessly manipulates our emotions and licks its lips over the various trials its characters face, Invictus makes the audience a part of the story by using its technical elements to place us in the crowds of spectators in and out of rugby stadiums, cheering alongside fans and gazing admirably on Mandela in his idealistic political actions. Here is a racial drama that does not invite us to gawk at the stratification between races (though there are revealing shots of the slums that Africans must inhabit in their own country) nor serves as a simple piece of feel-good fluff that always seems to be geared toward narcissistic white people.

The comparison between Mandela, the first black president of a country that broils with racial tensions in the wake of massive social upheaval, and Barack Obama is facile and distracting. Yes, Obama too inherited a financially and socially unstable country and his race, background and well-spoken presentation essentially cemented his iconography before he assumed office, but Eastwood is not a director concerned with politics; when his films make statements, they usually omit the politics for more social concerns -- his most political works of the decade, Changeling and Flags of Our Fathers, are among his weakest.

A better comparison piece to Invictus would be, naturally, Eastwood's last film, Gran Torino, a film I enjoyed albeit for all the wrong reasons, gawking at its false self-confidence like a rubbernecker at the American Idol tryouts. That film also dealt with racism, but it fell into the trap of the typical racial drama by pinning grand societal statements onto a handful of characters who could not shoulder the burden, not least of which because with the exception of Eastwood himself, the acting in that film was downright embarrassing. Invictus isn't the first sports film to deal with race (does anyone remember the Titans?), but it effectively flips the race movie on its head by using the personal stories of Mandela and rugby captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to feed into a larger social context.

Mandela knows little of rugby, and he even hates Francois' rugby team, the Springboks, a lingering symbol of South Africa' apartheid past -- he mentions to his adviser that, in prison, he and the other inmates use to cheer for any team but the Springboks to irritate the Afrikaner guards -- but he recognizes that whites, most of whom are every bit as indigenous as the Africans at this point, need to retain some symbol of their own past.

Freeman gives one of his finest performances as Mandela; he and Eastwood present the man as an inspirational and earnest idealist, but also a shrewd politician. He understands that hobbies as innocuous as sports link people more than speeches or social legislation, so he decides to, without forcing more black players onto the Springboks or changing their logo or colors, gently reshape the rugby team into the symbol of the Rainbow Nation. In his conversations with others, he can guide them into positions of inferiority, such as when he meets Francois and has the rugby captain sit facing the sun. Freeman's a naturally charismatic actor, but he imbues Mandela's cult of personality with incredible aplomb; however idealized this portrait may be, you believe that this man emerged from a 30-year prison sentence ready to forgive and lead. Eastwood and Peckham temper this mythic image with descriptions of his troubled personal life that are perhaps too forward where Freeman's acting and Eastwood's visuals could have communicated them without words, but these humanizing bits also help us understand why he might be so eager to think of the entire country as his family, Christlike behavior that it is.

Along with Quentin Tarantino and David Cronenberg, Eastwood is America's foremost cinematic moralist, even if all three of them are practitioners of occasionally extreme violence. As a moralist, he is neither as incisive and intuitive as Cronenberg nor as viscerally entertaining as Tarantino, but he trumps the both of them in his ability to make the characters emotions are own. At his best, such as Letters From Iwo Jima, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven and the parts of Million Dollar Baby that didn't slip into mawkishness, Eastwood makes his characters' pain and doubts our own. His sound crew, headed by long-time Eastwood collaborators Bud Asman and Alan Robert Murray, creates perhaps the most immersive crowd ambiance I've ever heard, perfectly capturing the overwhelming roar of a packed stadium and perfectly complementing Eastwood's exciting direction on the rugby field. We are mercifully spared the fine details of rugby save for a basic lesson about passing and a description of the World Cup bracket, and part of the fun of the time Eastwood spends on the green is figuring out the game as the film progresses (it's really not hard to pick up the basics). Off the field, he gives us fascinating glimpses not merely into Mandela's life but Pienaar's; Damon must recite some of the film's more questionable dialogue, the sort of platitudes that no rugby captain should be making, but Eastwood does such a fine job of presenting Francois as an intelligent, considerate person and Damon buries the loftier aspects of the prose in plain-spoken terms that allow us to root for the Springboks without feeling morally obligated to champion them simply for what they symbolize.

The first hour's pacing can be leaden at times, and, as usual, digital effects are the director's Achilles' heel, but Invictus stands as one of Eastwood's finest works of the decade, appealing even to this skeptic. His camerawork here is as gorgeous as ever and none too sly in places: at the start of the film, Mandela's bodyguard requests more men to protect the president, only for a handful of white officials to show up and report for duty. Eastwood places the black, inexperienced bodyguards on the more dominant right, but they look bewildered and somewhat frightened by the Afrikaners on the left, whose professional stoicism belies an equal confusion and discomfort. This shot, and others like it, don't play up racism for murky laughs as did the racial tension in Gran Torino, and it shows the director's gift for subtlety even in a comic situation.

Sorting through the various genres and storylines of Eastwood's directed filmography reveals a few noteworthy parallels (such as his odd fascination with abusive and ruined childhoods), but the primary link between his best works is his affinity for deconstruction. Unforgiven and Gran Torino sought to re-evaluate his iconic Man With No Name and Dirty Harry images, respectively; Flags of Our Fathers is about the deconstruction of a single photograph. Even when his films do not succeed entirely -- and I'm afraid I'd argue that most of his films these past ten years have not -- Eastwood has a remarkable ability to, in contrast to Tarantino and Cronenberg, delve so deep into his characters that he can lose himself in considering their motivations instead of making their statements through the action. Invictus, for all its flaws, shows him doing what he somehow managed to pull off in Letters From Iwo Jima: spending the time to learn about these characters even as monumental events happen all around them. When Mandela sends the Springboks to the black areas of the city with TV cameras, Eastwood comments upon all the other feel-good race movies out there: as Mandela views the footage of the Afrikaners jovially teaching fundamentals to the poor black youths who used to hate them, we might as well be watching the director's monitor while filming any number of Oscar-bait pictures. Eastwood, through Mandela, knows that such an oversimplified image can still win over large swaths of people who don't feel like looking any deeper, and this subtle jab at the film's primary audience proves that the old man's still got some fire in him.

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