Monday, February 15, 2010

INVICTUS - A Sports film by Basil Exposition

INVICTUS is a superficial, schmaltzy, by-the-numbers sports movie in which Clint Eastwood dumbs down the social and political history of South Africa, and completely fails to capture the excitement and brilliance of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. As you can tell, I'm pretty pissed off at having to have sat through two hours and fifteen minutes of this earnest but ham-fisted bilge. I will do my best to structure my anger into something like a meaningful review.

The plot is basic. It is 1995 in South Africa. Nelson Mandela is President of a nation still riven with racial tensions. He decides that he will, against all odds, unite the nation behind the South African rugby team, the Springboks, despite the fact that they are an icon of Apartheid. The Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, responds to Mandela's faith in him, and through rigourous training, the team triumphs and wins the World Cup, against all odds.

The issues are complex. Mandela wants to unite his nation, but this is no hippie vegetarian love-in. He needs white South Africans to feel invested enough in the new South Africa to make it economically and socially viable. He may portray himself as a wise sage, forgiving all and inspiring all, but he is, after all, a former terrorist (no matter how righteous the cause), addressed by his followers as Comrade. Mandela has an interest in creating the image of the wise harmless old statesman that we see given back to us in this film. A better film would have portrayed a more complicated man.

The simplicity of the screenplay is even more evident in the handling of Chester Williams, the only black South African in the squad. He is a smiling docile sort of chap who ignores politics in the one line he is given. Did he really ignore it or was he forced to? How did he feel about the pressure put upon him? How did he feel to be injured in the opening game? We never know.

And what of the attitude of the white South Africans? In this film, they are portrayed as low-level racists - a bit pissed off - a bit disenfranchised - but basically willing to throw it all up for an inspiring Mandela speech and some free world cup tickets. The Francois Pienaar character barely has to move at all - he seems ripe for conversion to Mandela's rainbow nation cause. At one point, I thought the film might delve into the issue of race in the relationship between Pienaar and his more surly players - the players who refuse to sing the former ANC hymn, Nkosi sikelele Africa. But no, Pienaar asks them to sing the anthem; they refuse; game over. Nowhere do we see actual argument or soul searching or character development. All we get are some speeches from Mandela and a magical transformation into a nation united behind the team. The worst the opposition can muster are some pissed off looks.

In Eastwood's "exploration" of the new South Africa, deep social and racial issues are reduced to a pissed-off stand-off in the playground.

Enough for the conceptual weakness. What of the production? This is, basically piss-poor. Locations in Jo'burg and Cape Town are mixed up. Morgan Freeman can't do a South African accent. Matt Damon makes a better attempt but looks like a midget compared to the real Pienaar. Not trusting the innate tension of the sporting events, Eastwood tries to inject a weak thriller element into his film by having Mandela's security guards worry about an assassination attempt. Not trusting the intelligence of the audience, he has characters explain the significance of every single action three times over. The dialogue is hammy: the security guard literally says "Not on my watch." The style is ham-fisted: we see a little black kid trying to listen to the match on the white copper's car radio. And yes, sure enough, by the end of the match, the copper is holding the kid ahoist. And they all lived happily ever after.

Basically, as a cinema-goer you have to decide what you want the movies you watch to do for you. If you want film to skate over the surface of the difficulties in life, and to tell soothing stories - if you want cinema to be as bland and as obvious and as Mickey Mouse simplistic as a mug of Ovaltine, go ahead and watch INVICTUS. But you do have a choice. If you want to be challenged - if you want to think radical thoughts about the racial issues really present in South Africa, watch DISGRACE instead.

Finally, one last point. There are certain moments that you do not cut away from. You just leave the camera standing and let the power of the shot mesmerise the audience. The nine minute rape scene with Monica Bellucci in IRREVERSIBLE is one. The first solo dance scene with John Travolta in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is another. You do NOT cut away from the Haka. You just let the All Blacks scare the shit out of you. That's the power - that's the thing that tells the audience that the Bokke are really up against it. Unless of course you are Clint Eastwood and you have no appreciation of rugby history and are merely shoe-horning a famous match into a schmaltzy sports flick genre picture.

INVICTUS is on global release.

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