Fumbled by Americansby Roger Young / 11.12.2009
I have always been a big fan of Clint Eastwood as a director but to watch Invictus is to watch him piss on his entire career. After watching such sweeping cinematic generalizations how can I now take the subtlety of Pale Rider or The Outlaw Josey Wales seriously ever again? But this is not Eastwood making a film for himself; this is Eastwood in his oft spoken about, “one for them” mode. He makes a crowd pleaser (Like say, The Rookie) to make some money and then he makes a film to satisfy his artistic urges (like White Hunter, Black Heart). However, since Unforgiven Eastwood’s choices of personal films have become increasingly Oscar bait material, solid performances with pseudo intelligentsia pleasing, “comment” on the triumph of the can-do spirit. Add to this an actor searching for the perfect script to play Mandela and you have the recipe for a very flat, by the numbers, insultingly simple slab of filmmaking.
Some elements of the film are just patently untrue and not just untrue but untrue in a very public way. The President’s security were aware that the plane that flew over the stadium was coming, in the film the implication is that they weren’t and went into a blind panic upon it’s approach, which is, frankly, insulting to the professionalism of our presidential guard. The Springboks were not unwilling to do the training camps in the townships, either. But let’s put this bending of the truth to fit an American story device aside, the primary concern is does Invictus work as a film, as a piece of entertainment?
Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman acquit themselves admirably but because the film is about their unwavering commitment to use rugby to unite a nation they are unable to um, waver. In order to advance the films story conflict is needed and here we are faced with two mascots of the unconflicted, so instead Eastwood sets up the nameless masses to be the antagonist and he voices these masses through minor characters such as the black presidential guard who don’t understand rugby, the sports union who want to strip the Boks of Bokness, Pienaar’s racist-lite father and the domestic worker who helps them all see rugby for its value or something. The entire film rests on these sub-conflicts as a way of pushing forward and the fact that the actors in these roles are so bad is the partial reason the entire film falls collapses in on itself. But the main reason these characters cannot prop up the film is the insulting simplicity of the characterizations, the idea that people are either black or white, racist or not. Witness the opening scene where black kids play soccer on one side of the road while on the other white kids play rugby, Mandela’s cavalcade from Plosmoor drives past, the white rugby coach says to his squad, “remember this boys, this is the day your country went to the dogs”. It rings inherently false, not because it’s unrepresentative (it’s not entirely) but because it is so obviously a lazy shorthand for those times.
Invictus’s big heartstring tugging moments are effective enough but the film is let down by the detail, it’s sloppy execution and lack of complexity. At a high moment in the final game one of the rugby players screams “nooooo” in slow motion with fear on his face, maybe it’s a dramatic gimmick but it’s essentially false and whittles away at the idea of a team determined to win. Eastwood consistently sets up little conflicts to drive the plot forward and in so doing misses the whole point of what makes that time in history so interesting, that the debates that raged through the nation were so complex, so not just black on white but many shaded and that one rugby game (and the complexities of the process of getting to that one game) that made the nation hopeful and high on optimism. To simplify those debates into stock characters, badly handled, is to deny the real miracle of the achievement. It’s not that Invictus needed to be a wordy ponderous film but for it to sum up the achievement with a black Presidential Guard finally, “understanding” rugby and a cop hugging a street kid is oversimplification to the point of redundancy. It is this that makes me think Eastwood, like so many of his countrymen, has seen Mandela’s rise to power as simply a miracle and has failed to grasp not the shades of complexity but the nature of those shades that made the simplicity of the cup final moment that much more powerful. Unfortunately for us because it is an American perspective that will now stand as the lasting one, it does make one wish that we were finally taking control of our own stories.