Ruck and a hard place
Clint Eastwood’s post-Apartheid drama is a manipulative, corny but finally moving story of a nation transforming itself, writes Donald Clarke
YOU’LL HAVE to excuse this writer’s cackhandedness in constructing rugby metaphors (I’ve never been a fan), but there seems no way of reviewing Clint Eastwood’s latest film without dallying in that territory.
Every actor who has worked with the great man has declared that Clint seems to do little else on set except make sure the camera doesn’t fall over. Eastwood is a practically minded craftsman who cares little for ornate flourishes. Rather than indulging in jinking runs or graceful sequences of complex passes, he boots the ball in the air and accompanies his teammates in a steady, unflinching surge for the line. Will this do?
Invictus, the story of Nelson Mandela’s involvement with the South African rugby team in the run-up to the 1995 World Cup, offers a practical demonstration of the strengths and weaknesses in the Eastwood approach.
The film is quite extraordinarily hokey. Music surges at all the most obvious moments – did I imagine a song called Colourblind? – and the political and sporting nuances are explained in ploddingly prosaic, expository paragraphs. But, by golly, the film does get to you. Eastwood may not be flashy, but he remains a superb technician.
Played by Morgan Freeman as a canny, humorous sage, Mandela emerges from prison and almost immediately begins to frustrate the vengeful expectations of his angrier supporters and to mollify the worst fears of his largely white opponents. He hires former special branch men as personal bodyguards. He extends a hand of friendship to those whites brandishing the new nation’s flag. He opposes the sports council’s plan to stop the South African rugby team (a powerful symbol of apartheid) from calling themselves the Springboks and from wearing their famous green and gold strip.
Mandela goes further. He invites the team’s struggling captain, François Pienaar (an unflashy Matt Damon), to tea and politely makes it clear that the Springboks now represent the entire nation.
Even the most ardent rugbyphobe will probably find the frequent explanations of the team’s predicaments pedantically explicit. After a lengthy description of the World Cup’s mechanisms, Freeman’s Mandela actually stops and, with painful deliberation, says: “So you’re saying it is very important that we beat Australia?” Okay, we’ve got that. You half expect someone to go on and explain that we should leave the cinema when names start spooling up from the bottom of the screen.
Invictus is equally unsubtle at an emotional level. The Pienaar family’s relationship with their maid – as events progress, they gain a closeness and end up sitting together at the final – echoes (supposedly) improving race relations in the most nauseatingly corny fashion.
Yet, for all those rampaging flaws, Invictus does tug at the heart. When Freeman intones the poem that gives the film its name, the experienced cinemagoer will feel his movie glands being manipulated – and will thank Clint for doing the job so effectively. “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul,” Mandela quotes. These hokey old tropes have survived because they work.
Invictus does, also, have something interesting to say about the importance of sporting symbolism. The Springboks, Mandela realises, cannot survive as an emblem of oppression if the oppressed choose to embrace them. The black population have the power to detoxify the most troubling idols of Apartheid.
And the film is prepared to poke fun at itself. In one glorious moment, following Pienaar’s meeting with the president, a pal asks one of the bodyguards what Pienaar is like in the flesh. “Smaller than he looks on TV,” he says. That may distract pedants from declaring that Matt Damon (5’ 10”) is far too wee to play François Pienaar (6’ 3”). Good gag, Clint.
Oscarnominated Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in Invictus