December 15, 2009 by Zack
Sports movies are always going to be a hard thing to pull off. While we love sports, and we love sports stories, a movie about sports takes away probably the best part of sports–the unpredictability. In a film, the fate has been determined. Besides, in most sports stories, you know that the team usually wins–unless that’s not the point. If it’s a movie about a bunch of losers, they will end up winning the big game. If it’s a movie about people coming together, the team can lose the big game and it’s OK. In a film like “Remember the Titans”, you get both scenarios and it carefully balances two stories of a football team coming together, and race relations coming together in a volatile time in this country.
“Invictus” is similar in its approach. It takes place after the apartheid is over in South Africa, and Nelson Mandella (played by Morgan Freeman) has been elected president. Meanwhile, the other central character of the film, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), is the captain of a very bad national rugby team, known as The Springboks. Mandella attends a game, and watches them get brutally outplayed by England; the blacks in the crowd root for England, while the whites root for the Springboks. He notices that the strain of the culture is still very apparent, and he wants to do something about it. It so happens that South Africa will host the 1995 Rugby World Cup, so Mandella mandates to Francois that the Springboks must win the World Cup, in order to bring the country together.
The problem is, half the country abhors the Springboks and everything they stand for. There is a meeting by the Sports Board that wants to get rid of the Springboks name and colors (green & gold), as they represent the apartheid, and the Afrikaans. Mandella tells them to forgive, and that changing the name and colors only makes this about revenge and not forgiveness.
Mandella does not have a lot of support at first. His security is also blended with whites, to the dismay of the blacks who are protecting him. There is no question the film tries to display the intolerance in the country. Meanwhile, the Springboks have gotten a new coach who wants to train them harder, and the team doesn’t agree with these new practices, and thinks that there’s too much pressure put on them. Francois wants them to rise to the occasion.
All of this is a great premise, and the film starts with a lot of promise. The problem, though, is that it never seems to come together. It does illustrate the tensions that the country still has with itself, and it even shows the rugby team improve as most sports movies will display as they get closer to the big game. But it just seems like Clint Eastwood, normally so well at developing characters and atmosphere, is just throwing things onto a canvas and hoping it all sticks. Some if it does, but not enough for it to resonate. I never felt a part of this film. I felt like an outsider, and that’s not how I felt when I watched “Remember the Titans”. I think I know why.
Mandella, in the film, as a character, has no real flaws. Denzel Washington’s character in “Remember the Titans” had things in his own life that provided challenges. Mandella doesn’t have full support, but no one necessarily opposes what he does. His doctor tells him to rest, but nothing really happens when he disobeys. Mandella was a great man at that time, but I’m sure he had his flaws. I think the movie shows him to be too much as a saint. And if he’s your main character, it just doesn’t work. The other central character, Francois, also has no visible flaws. And we don’t get enough “locker room” insight to watch the chemistry of this team grow, and watch them come together to become a greater team. That has to happen in a sports movie.
So that’s primarily the issue. The film doesn’t really have a focus. It does a good job with certain images of what post-apartheid life was like in South Africa. There’s also a very poignant scene in which Francois tours the prison that Mandella spent 27 years of his life in, and envisions Mandella in that cell, and working in the yard, while Mandella recites “Invictus” in his head. But overall, the film just misses and doesn’t bring it all together.
There are a few other issues I had. First, it’s the sport itself. I don’t really understand rugby. This is not a country that really embraces it as a major sport. The scenes displaying the game seem to capture what the game is–but I don’t really know what they’re doing. In that regard, it’s hard to follow whether you’re supposed to get really excited, or really tense. How does the point system work? Or the time? It seems to use a time scheme much like soccer (which I do follow) but the overtime rules went over my head. Also, I still don’t understand the scrum part of the game, and that becomes essential in the climax of the film. I was lost. I think the film could have done us a favor and give us a few scenes of strategy and play that showed exactly how the game worked, from soup to nuts (did I just use corporate speak?).
The other issue is smaller but it really bothered me. The music. Well, not so much the score–that was beautiful. It was the really cheesy songs that just took away from the drama. Usually that doesn’t bother me, but this was not background music. It was distracting, and I thought it just took me out of the mood of the film.
On the bright side, the performances by Freeman and Damon are exceptional. Damon pulls of a South African accent which is probably one of the more difficult ones to pull off. I give him credit for that. Freeman, as usual, is excellent as Mandella.
It’s a bit of a disappointment that this film didn’t hold together as well as I had hoped. Unlike “Remember the Titans”, which just executed better because it stuck to a theme and stuck to its characters and showed them to be human beings as well as heroes, this film comes up short. I can’t believe I’m giving more credit to a Disney movie than a Clint Eastwood film. I never thought that day would come. But I guess anything’s possible.