Invictus (USA, 2009, Clint Eastwood
And so Ben sez:
I'm not into sports in a big way and I'm generally wary of patriotism. The supposedly sublimated violence of the former often fuels the organized xenophobia of the latter. Militant supporters on the sidelines are in a recreational dress rehersal for war. On the other hand, sometimes the aggression inherent in athletic confrontation is indeed sublimated into healthy competition and mutual respect. Assessed politically, it becomes a question of whether sports and patriotism can affirm domestic unity and international solidarity at the same time. It's not impossible but it's so rare, one could be forgiven for reckoning the challenge was to square the circle.
Such a miracle of geomtery was the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted and won by South Africa. Invictus tells the tale in the standard Hollywood way. A bit too much sappy music. All the rough edges sanded off the characters. All the realistic complexity of the situation erased in order to present a super-simplified, feel-good story about the triumph of the underdog team and by association their fans. The significance of this is not trivial in this particular super-simplified, feel-good story because it happens to be true. All of the drama in the film rests on the post-Aparthied reconcilliation potential of the event. Invictus - based on the book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation - well, the book title says it all.
Unfortunately, all of the drama of the film resting on what is all said by that book title is not enough drama. The rough edges are so sanded off of Mandela, the film amounts to hagiography. Personally, I'm so desperate for honorable political leadership, genuine statesmanship, I'm prepared to let this go. Name even one other person alive today with the ethical gravitas of Nelson Mandela. Fine then. Morgan Freeman strides through the film as Moses in a business suit and I can dig it. It's the two-dimensionality of the rest of the characters that drags Invictus down dramatically. In erasing all the realistic complexity, the film gives nobody anything interesting to say or do. There are no interpersonal conflicts, there's no dramatic tension. Especially lacking is tension among the members of the team. There's a bit of superficial grumbling but nothing that enters substantively into the historical context. A bit more is explored by way of the security staff on detail to protect the president, but not enough to really raise the dramatic stakes. Alas, not unlike a Disney picture for kids, all that is left is the drama of the sports competition itself.
But here's where the nonfiction of the story turns inward on the film in a terribly disappointing way. The outcome of the historical rugby match is known in advance. Where's the drama in that? I suppose the sheer physicality of the game, the action down on the ground, might have been enough to generate some theatrics. But this doesn't come off in Invictus. I don't know if the problem has to do with the cinematography or the choreography of the play or something intrinsic to rugby that makes it less dramatically photogenic than other sports. I don't know. But whatever the source of the failure, the failure is palpable. Watching the victory game is just not the viseral thrill it absolutely must be, what with everything riding on it.
Of course, in reality, there was much less riding on winning the cup in the end and much more riding on the mere fact of hosting the competition in the first place, as Wikipedia explains:
The 1995 Rugby World Cup was the third Rugby World Cup. It was hosted and won by South Africa, and had the distinction of being the first Rugby World Cup in which every match was held in one country.The World Cup was the first major sporting event to take place in South Africa following the end of apartheid. It was also the first in which the South African national team was allowed to compete; the International Rugby Football Board (IRFB, now the International Rugby Board) had only allowed the readmittance of South Africa to international rugby in 1992, following negotiations to end apartheid.
Meanwhile, 15 years later, it remains all too easy to shoot the shanty town scenes on location. In observing this, I must also take note of the best line of dialogue in the film. It is spoken by the black maid of the parents of the captain of the rugby team. He has just informed his family that he has been instructed to meet with the president. The maid speaks up. Tells him to tell "Madiba" that the buses are too expensive.
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