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Political Invictus another Eastwood victory
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Political Invictus another Eastwood victory

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Invictus
Opening December 11


Realizing the power sport can hold over people, newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) comes to the conclusion that his country's rugby team, the green and gold Springboks - adored by whites but despised by blacks - need to win the 1995 World Cup. It's a tall order, but by enlisting the aid of the team's young captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) he's confident a positive outcome can be reached, and under the banner "One Country, One Team" the duo hope to erase the specter of apartheid for good.

As a director, Clint Eastwood has never been one to stick to conventional wisdom. The man became an icon thanks to his turns in Western classics like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and hard-boiled police thrillers like Dirty Harry, and while he's made sure to play in those genres behind the camera, many films like High Plains Drifter, Tightrope and Unforgiven go along way to deconstructing the Eastwood mythos.

But he hasn't stopped there. The filmmaker has looked at obsession both inside and out of the Hollywood jungle in White Hunter, Black Heart, has attempted a warts and all biopic of jazz great Charlie Parker with Bird, tackled controversy by examining euthanasia in Million Dollar Baby and somehow made Robert James Waller's soapy The Bridges of Madison County one of the purest depictions of love and sacrifice I've ever seen. Now pushing 80, he's embarked on his most ambitious slate of films yet, recently dissecting both sides of WWII with Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers, crafting a 1930s Los Angeles mystery with Changeling, and pushing the limits of racial intolerance while also further commenting on his own cinematic persona with Gran Torino.

Now comes the based-on-fact political drama Invictus, an underdog sports story more interested in how a country can unite after decades of intolerance and bigotry than it is in which way the ball bounces or who scores the winning points. This film is a The Queen-like saga of a political leader trying to make the right moves when the wrong ones would be a heck of a lot easier, where bowing to conventional wisdom would have split people apart instead of bringing them together.

This take by Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham (Don't Say a Word), working from John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy, is an interesting one. Where lesser filmmakers would have played up the sports angle, gone out of their way to turn this into a South African rugby version of Hoosiers or Remember the Titans, these two instead focus almost entirely upon Mandela and his decision making, the outcome on the field a virtual afterthought.

This does tend to hurt as much as it helps. Where the political machinations are downright fascinating, and while one cannot help but be moved by Mandela's strength of will and almost miraculous foresight, whenever the film does turn to the rugby pitch it all becomes far less interesting. The scenes of on-field action aren't exciting, and anyone new to the sport isn't going to learn anything to help them to make sense of it. Even though the fate of an entire nation more or less rests on the outcome, the championship game is surprisingly inert, and while a few of the rougher moments do pack the requisite punch, the majority sadly reeks of platitude and cliché.

Thankfully those are complaints I cannot levy against the remainder of the film. Watching Mandela at work, observing the relationships between his staff, his entourage and his security team, seeing him take to his task with the tenacity of a lion and the sensitivity of a lamb is fascinating. For those unfamiliar with how South Africa was able to make such a startling transformation after decades of violence and despair, much can be learned here. It is spellbinding stuff, and as soon as the movie was over I walked right into Barnes and Nobles and purchased a copy of Carlin's book, eager to learn more.

A case can be made that Eastwood's celebrated (and sometimes notorious) restraint and attention to detail work against him a little bit in this instance. The pacing is a tad lackadaisical, and while scenes of Mandela's family strife are intriguing, I'm not sure they're necessary. Many times Peckham's screenplay delicately hints at things the majority of viewers do not need spelled out, only to revisit them in tedious detail later on. While I was never frustrated, I do admit to wishing now and again the movie would just get on with it.

On the flip side, both Damon and Freeman deliver exemplary performances, and even if the accents aren't perfect, the way they dig deep inside their respective characters certainly is. Freeman, in particular, doesn't just rise to the occasion; he embodies it whole, taking one of the most recognizable figures of the last century and making me feel like I was seeing him for the very first time.

Overall, with Invictus, Eastwood not only once again goes in an unexpected direction, he also adds insight to a historical event many know far too little about. Once translated, the title means "unconquered," and when you consider everything South Africa has been through, I cannot think of a better one. This movie is about more than winning rugby games, about more than athletes and politicians working together for a common goal. It is, in the end, about a people coming together to look hardship and tragedy in the eye and rise above for the common good. If that's not a victory worth celebrating, I'm not sure what else would be.

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