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Fumbled by Americans

Fumbled by Americans

by 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?

Invictus

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.

Francie P

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.

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RESPONSES (16)
  1. Jason says:

    Rog, you should be a film critic one day when you’re big. Brilliant.

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  2. maJali says:

    i havent watchd it by from your review im dying to.
    I do agree with you on ownin gour own stores and finding our own way of telling them, because as twisted as they may be. we know them best..

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  3. Francois Pienaar says:

    This movie was the biggest load of tripe that I have ever had the misfortune of seeing. It actually blinded me for a few hours afterwards. What’s ever worse is that it has an 8.3 on IMDB. fools.

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  4. Francois Pienaar says:

    PLUS, the height of Matt Damon’s skills were visible in that very funny movie, Team America. He’s never before or since reached that level of greatness. I am insulted he played me. Surely they could have cast me, did you guys see me in those Lays adverts? I can act.

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  5. Carol Reed says:

    A quick analysis of the writing style above reveals that that may actually be FP.

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  6. Paul K says:

    The Americans and English have a highly simplified, generalised and misconcieved view of South African culture. Their arrogance prevents them from considering that their view of South Africa may be lacking intricacy. From the review it seems like this movie displayed this ignorance (and underlying arrogance) on a grand scale, and I am not surprised that this is the case. They also find it hard to associate a sophisticated society with a third world, again due to their ignorance, arrogance and self-superiority.

    District 9 and Tsotsi did a decent job of portraying the intricacies of South Africa, but they were both made by South Africans. I therefore disagree with the last point of the review. A higher level of optimism is warranted!

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  7. Roger Young says:

    In considering the nationality of the filmmaker one must also consider the nationality of the money being used to make the film. Both Hood and Blomkamp live outside of South Africa, both of those films were made with foreign money for foreign audiences and are triumphs because they managed to get across SOME of the subtlety of South African life. I would, however, hesitate to call them total successes, the ending of Totsi is ineptly handled and D9’s handling of the South African squatter camp residents as well as the Nigerians was extremely lazy. Both these films are a step in a better direction and must be lauded for that. But if we fall back on unbridled optimism now we will not go any further forward.

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  8. Paul K says:

    I don’t think the nationality or current residence of the filmmaker has any relevance. What matters is where they came from and what they know about their roots. This is why they managed to capture some of the intricacy and subtlety of SA in District 9 and Tsotsi.

    Secondly I never lauded them as total successes, rather I said they didi a ‘decent’ job of portraying the intricacies of South Africa.

    Thirdly I never advocated unbridled optimism, I just said that a higher degree of optimism than that espoused in your review is warranted. But yes, I agree in principle that more initiative and output is needed from SA.

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  9. Roger Young says:

    Knowing your roots is only important if you follow the growth of the tree.

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  10. Paul K says:

    Profound, and true. I do however think both those guys knew enough about the growth of their tree to make good movies.

    FYI keep on producing great reviews.

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  11. tumi.j says:

    ‘…insulting to the professionalism of our presidential guard’ – as a burning issue this is down there with oh did Joost keep the receipt for the camcorder and has Malema really had his ears fitted with a device (holidaying in Thailand) that inverts boos into cheers! the presidential guard…

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  12. Roger Young says:

    Okay, I’m going to have to jump in and clarify that. In the film Mandela makes a point of having his Guards made up of MK and former Security branch, to represent unity because the public sees the Guard everywhere he goes. He uses the Guards to send a message. Eastwood uses this as a significant plot point. The later on in the film he makes the Presidential Guards look like fools in order to create a fake tension merely because the film is starting to feel flat. What this does is destroy his lead characters credibility, that’s Mandela’s credibility by implying that he chose Guards, both black and white who were incompetent. Regardless of what this means in terms of an insult to the actual people it erodes the central idea of the film which is simply, Mandela knew what he was doing.

    Maybe I should have written “insulting to the professionalism of the presidential guard’, that would have made it clearer.

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  13. joel says:

    Doesn’t look to me like Eastwood is pissing on his entire career. The movie has received rave reviews and an average rating of 77% on rotton tomatoes and 8 out of 10 on IMDb. Eastwood has been nominated for a Golden Globe as best director for this movie… Just saying…

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  14. Roger Young says:

    Transformers 2: was a 9/10 on imdb for it’s first 2 months. And Rotten Tomatoes pools critics mostly from the USA. Of course they think it’s a great film, its got Mandela in it. Of course we’ll think its a great film, it’s got rugby in it and hey, it means the American’s like us. But it really is lazy film making and it calls into question whether or not he is an insightful observer of character out side of his own context.

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  15. Krokodil Ngwenya says:

    I felt the exact same thing. They missed the very point they were trying to make because they failed to demonstrate the threat of civil war on all the levels it existed at. They didn’t even get the games right (jeez, didn’t these guys even bother to watch the damn tapes???)
    Death by Hollywood, bwah!

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  16. Morpheus Rising says:

    The Rottentomatoes rating is a joke. I went to watch Invictus after viewing Gran Torino on DVD and was very hopeful that Eastwood would make a great movie out of this story. Instead I ended up squirming in my seat, laughing out loud several times ‘Fakus gahs fakus!’, and leaving the theatre thinking it was the worst movie I have seen in the past year.

    The problem is this. It tells a Mandela story. In our era of delusional neo-liberal PC bs this makes it a good film, even if it’s a bad film (watch somebody call me a racist). Freeman did his best, and Matt Damon will probably never live this film down, but mostly it was the directing and casting that killed it:

    1. Half the players in the Springbok team were Americans putting on bad Saffir accents, with the worst offender being Eastwood’s son as Joel Stransky.
    2. This decision actually makes sense after watching the way the SA sourced cast performed. I don’t know what it is about South African actors but, D9 excepted, they tend to put on such wooden performances. You end up feeling like you’re watching a play where the actors are mentally rehearsing their lines all the time and are feeling self-conscious about being on camera.
    3. Slow motion during the final. Good grief. Slow mo to draw out emotive moments should have died with the perm and everything else from the ’80s. The effect is to create the impression that Eastwood felt that the moment was lacking in drama and needed to enhance it (as was the case with the weird scene when the jumbo flew over Ellis Park, which made it look like this was decided on the spur of the moment).
    4. The rugby simulations were awful. They looked exactly like actors playing a game they knew nothing about. The Springbok team didn’t even look like athletes.

    Horrific, all round.

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