Friday, December 11, 2009

Invictus: It Came, It Saw, Didn't Conquer

"Invictus" is the story of how South African President, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), unifies his racially polarized country with the help of rugby team captain, Francois Piennar (Matt Damon). At its essence it's a sports film but underlying the athleticism is the traditional "can't we all just get along" that we've seen often in sports movies.

"Remember the Titans" (football) and "Glory Road" (basketball) are similarly themed yet set in America during the Civil Rights Movement. "Invictus"(rugby) is set in post-apartheid South Africa and all the world is watching, waiting to see how the newly elected president will calm fears of the white ruling class, yet instill hope in the black majority robbed of basic human rights. In all three films sports or one sporting event seems to close the great racial divide for the length of the game. But once the players leave the field or court then what?

Another interesting comparison "Invictus" brought to mind as the film showed Mandela moving into his new elected office was that of our own President Obama. With both presidents issues of security were heightened not merely because of their high profile jobs but because of the painful history that followed them there. Could Mandela's black security team trust the spoken loyalty of their assigned white co-workers, men that once helped to oppress them? Would they take a bullet for a president they didn't vote for? The film answers the questions.

That said, what compelled Mandela to reach out to Pienaar in the first place outside of his position as rugby team captain? His father is quite vocal in his negative views of black South Africa and his fear of political retribution, but Piennar not so much. Damon plays him as a man focused solely on the game, his teammates, and how they will make it to the world finals.

As he learns more about the man, Nelson Mandela, his vision of a unified South African, and the team's role in it, we see Piennar evolving from a mere athlete to a sports ambassador. But it's handled rather softly, almost like a visual press release. Considering the weighty role he was chosen to play on and off the field, I would have liked to have seen deeper emotion from him. Was there no inner conflict with what he was being asked to do?

Overall, the film moves a little too slow. Freeman is convincing as Mandela, but my attention was often pulled away from his character to the actor himself. He moves stiffly in some scenes, not from old age, but due to his injuries from the highly publicized car accident last year. His left arm was seemingly on the mend during production and it shows as he attempts to work around the injury.

I can't say the film is not worth seeing at all. But is it worth seeing at the theater? I say DVD or pay-per-view. "Invictus" just didn't conquer my movie viewing senses emotionally as I had hoped. The poem of the same name is more inspiring. It did however, give me a whole new respect for the sport of rugby and its players. No helmets, no pads! Those men ain't nothing to "play" with on the field!

And lastly, one quick observation. If this film is about Mandela, a political figure known around the world, and a sports figure not necessarily known the world over, why is the image representing Mandela turned away from us. Who doesn't know that you never turn your back to the audience? So with Matt Damon facing his fans, film marketers which audience are you REALLY trying to appeal too, pray tell?

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