Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Jason watches INVICTUS

And that's my first movie of 2010, and it's a pretty good one.

Given the legendary (and continuing) status of Nelson Mandela's life, it's probably a smart idea to keep a biopic limited in scope and let a short period illustrate the character of the man. And in fact the few times Clint Eastwood lost my attention was when he tries to expand beyond the details of the story--frankly, I don't care if Mandela had a troubled family life. Sure, it's fine to show him as mortal and flawed, but it was just shoe-horned in there akwardly.

The story takes place shortly after Mandela wins the Presidency, and is trying to unite his "Rainbow Nation." Now a little background about sports in South Africa at the time (summarized neatly in the opening scenes): blacks play football (soccer) on rundown, dirty fields; whites play rugby on green, well-maintained fields. The national rugby team, the Springboks, is very popular among the whites but blacks routinely root against them as they view the team as a symbol of Apartheid.

In this environment, Mandela makes a political gamble and backs the Springboks over officials who want to remove the name and colors. His reasoning is that he can never unite black and white Africans if his government does everything the whites were afraid of--like remove their beloved cultural icons. But as the story unfolds, and Mandela enlists team captain Francois Pienaar (Mat Damon) to inspire his struggling team to greatness in the 1995 World Cup, it becomes rather clear that this is more than political, Mandela's a true fan of rugby. And soon, thanks to outreach efforts ordered from the top, the whole country is as well.

Freeman, Damon, and Eastwood are all at the top of their game in this film, and although the ending is pre-ordained to anyone with the basic googling skills to look up the winner of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the climactic scenes are still tense and exciting.

The title INVICTUS comes from a poem by William Ernest Henley (famous ending lines: I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul) which Mandela read to inspire himself during his imprisonment. In the movie, he gives a copy of it to Pienaar to inspire the team, although that story is apparently apocryphal. But the scene where Pienaar tours Mandela's old cell and imagines him reciting it is powerful. And by letting us see it through Pienaar's point of view it's an example of where Eastwood figured out how to broaden the scope without digressing from the narrative.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the subplot involving Mandela's security detail and his controversial decision to hire white agents (who protected the previous President DeClerke). Trust-building starts on many fronts, and ultimately they're all professionals doing their jobs.

Oh, and one last thing. I'm wary of believing this is intentional, but in the atmosphere of fear and mistrust depicted among many at the start of Mandela's Presidency, I can't help but think about our current President. Again, I'm not saying it was meant to make that parallel, I'm just putting it out there.
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