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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

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

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