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Story’s restraint works against ‘Invictus’

POSTED: December 16, 2009 5:21 p.m.
/Warner Bros.

Morgan Freeman portrays former South African president Nelson Mandela in a long-awaited film telling the story of the country's struggle to become united after apartheid.

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"Invictus" teams director Clint Eastwood and actors Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in a film about Nelson Mandela, one of the most inspiring figures of the 20th century. That combination should be monumental - literally, a monument to heroism and courage.

That may be the problem. What movie could possibly live up to the expectations created by this source material, cast and crew?

In fairness to "Invictus," it's possible the answer is, no film could do full justice.

But expectations aren't the only thing working against "Invictus." A few major flaws keep it from being the great film it could have been, rather than the merely good movie it is.

"Invictus" tells the story of Mandela's early presidency and how the South African rugby team inspired the nation toward a sense of forgiveness and solidarity. The two stories are more closely linked than may be obvious.

Nelson Mandela (Freeman) understood that his primary duties as president, such as reviving the economy and rebuilding infrastructure, were important. But no policy changes would matter if he couldn't forge a sense of nationhood or at least tolerance among whites and blacks.

Mandela sees the national rugby team as a vehicle to achieve this cultural goal. South Africa already was slated to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and Mandela apparently took a hands-on approach to inspiring the national team to win it, giving all South Africans a team to cheer on and identify with. Mandela meets personally with team captain François Pienaar (Damon) and often sets aside his daily agenda to look in on the team.

Problem is, the team is pretty bad. If South Africa wasn't the host country, the team likely wouldn't even qualify for the tournament.

"Invictus" thus combines the underdog sports movie with the biopic, but it never hits the emotional peaks promised by the scenario.

The story begins with Mandela's first day in office. Later, the film shows us glimpses of the strife that had gripped South Africa and a glance of Mandela's three decades in prison. But that's all we see of apartheid: glimpses and glances.

The apartheid era was unjust, oppressive and cruel. But in its effort to avoid pushing viewers' buttons, the film never shows us South Africa at its worst. Drama can't attain exhilarating heights if we have no sense of the tragedy the characters have endured.

So our rooting interest in national unification isn't as strong as it should have been.

The filmmaker's restraint also undermines Freeman's portrayal of Mandela. They focus on Mandela's genial manner during his daily activities in office. He is polite to everyone, and they all return this courteous attitude. This might be an accurate depiction, but again, it doesn't make for great drama.

The worst we see Mandela deal with is a drink thrown at him during a pre-match appearance and a white South African man lobbing criticism of Mandela from his armchair. And this man Mandela, who surely endured his hardships through faith and passion alone, seems downright boring.

But surely, you say, the rugby lends some passion to the movie. Yes and no.

I doubt many Americans will get fired up over a sport that most here don't understand, let alone watch.

And even if the sport itself hooks you, the movie drains most of the excitement out of what should have been the triumphant action sequence.

The crucial moments of the climactic game are shown to us in several straight minutes of slow-motion. It becomes tedious just when it should be thrilling.

The end result of all this is a movie that engages and inspires only because of the profundity of its source material. Eastwood and company add nothing to the history they retell.

That history still makes for a good film, but it's fair to expect a bit more from this team of talent.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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