What I like about Clint Eastwood as a director is his economy. In recent times (and my goodness, is he prolific at the age of 80! 7 films in 6 years, and not a bad one among them) he’s tackled some big, dramatic stories. The emotional context of films like The Changeling and Gran Torino could easily have drifted off into grandstanding; that they don’t, and move us gently but powerfully with their stories of ordinary people experiencing something remarkable is down to the subtlety of Eastwood’s direction. He draws controlled performances, and its so much the better for all of us.
Which is why he’s just the man to bring us a film like Invictus. Taken from the pages of recent South African history, as well as John Carlin’s excellent book Playing The Enemy (being re-released under the same title as the film), it’s the story of Nelson Mandela as South African President, facing the unenviable task of balancing the fears and hope of a nation that appears to teetering on the brink of fracture. How does he reach out to the scared, entrenched Afrikaner heartland? He uses their secular religion, rugby, forging a new hope and spirit around the World Cup his country will host and out of which the home team is expected to crash. That they don’t – and how the country united around a uniform, badge and sport that had previously been a symbol of prejudice and division – is a story of Mandela’s genius for the prophetic act, forgiveness and that unique sporting cocktail of luck and determination.
It’s not a sports film, but it is a film that uses sport as its language. Rugby is a difficult sport to film, but Eastwood strips the scenes live action to their essential, focussing on the sound and fury, the physical combat. If the story of sport in the film seems like a tired cliché, then that’s the fault of the viewer – in sporting terms, he puts on-screen what happened. That it seems unbelievable is not the fault of the film – it’s the very thing that causes some to say that ever God intervened in a sports tournament for bigger cause, it was this one. Sometimes, sporting fairy tales do happen.
So there may be cliché, but that’s because the cliché is there in the truth itself. While, of course, there’s editing and there’s the danger of hagiography when it comes to a character as revered as Mandela, and that will lead to some cynicism or dismissal of a story such as this. It is, of course, the role Morgan Freeman was born to play, even if his accent does vary wildly between the accurate and the non-existent. Matt Damon is brilliant as Francois Pienaar – his South African accent is very good, and his blend of conviction, athletic excellence and a man sensing his calling is greater than he can fulfill builds to a rounded and subtle portrayal of inspirational leadership.
So this is an excellent film, that will I think not get the recognition it deserves because of its subject and the political issues that circle around it. If you click on these words then you’ll see why this story at this time holds special poignancy for me. Indeed, on my other blog (www.offtosouthafrica.wordpress.com) over the next couple of days I’ll address this film from a more personal perspective, looking at some of the issues around it. For now, though, I commend Invictus to you – it’s a story of hope fulfilled; it’s not the story of a finished work, but it’s one that gives energy and belief from what has been for what could yet be. Enjoy.