Film Review: Clint continues to intrigue despite playing it safe

Film: Invictus.

Release: 2010.

Director: Clint Eastwood.

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon.

Review: John Butler.


Many movie fans out there would have long recognised that Clint Eastwood has been on an extended later life roll. Long past his prime as a leading man, he’s prolifically directed (and often starred in) a string of films which have made him one of the more interesting Hollywood figures.

One of the notable characteristics of his latter day artistic revival as an actor has been a willingness to revisit and re-examine some of his iconic screen personas from the past. He seems to have taken a certain sly pleasure out of subverting old roles, often undercutting established perceptions of them.

As director, he’s always had eclectic tastes, so if any Hollywood director was going to make a mainstream Hollywood film about rugby, chances were it would be Clint.

Rugby? How many Americans care about rugby? How was this gonna stack up against Avatar? Luckily he can produce his own films nowadays;  otherwise the pitch on this one would have been tricky.

Unsurprisingly,  this film is only partly about rugby. The real star of this tale is another 20th century icon, Nelson Mandela, as played by Morgan Freeman.

For those unaware of this film’s storyline, a newly elected President Mandela is facing the need for national reconciliation between black and white, following the traumas of apartheid. He comes to see the Springboks as an important device to reach out to the white community, and reassure them they have a place in the new South Africa.

With the approaching World Cup an important stepping-out for the nation, the struggles of the Springboks — long denied international competition —  becomes a particular point of interest to him. Even those who know nothing of rugby should have an idea of where this classic underdog story will go from here.

A common dilemma shared by bio-pics and historical sports films alike is how to maintain dramatic tension in a story where the facts are already known. Granted, not many Americans will be up to speed on the Rugby World Cup of 1995, but the Mandela story is an entrenched part of modern folklore.

This is where the casting of Morgan Freeman raises an interesting question. In a sense, of course it’s played by Morgan Freeman: his contract must clearly contain a clause making him default choice for all distinguished, elderly, black roles — at least until Denzel is old enough.

Depending on your perspective, this particular casting decision is either a no-brainer, or a worrying indication of what is to follow. This is not to particularly criticise Mr Freeman’s performance. The responsibility of playing such a famous figure must be daunting, and given the demands of the script, he does a respectable job of inhabiting the role.

But what this casting indicates it that even though the subject matter may be exotic to American tastes, the rest of the film will be delivered in reassuringly familiar forms. Despite attempts to inject side themes, none of these really go anywhere, and the film soon becomes a fairly standard tale of team (and therefore national) triumph against the odds.

While obviously well intentioned, the portrayal of Mandela in straight forward heroic vein leaves me feeling he’s done somewhat of a disservice. Surely part of the man’s greatness is that, precisely because of the complex life he’d led, the choices he made as leader showed remarkable humanity, generosity of spirit, and dedication to a bigger picture. The film hammers at some of these themes, but leaves out many shades of the man. Perhaps I’m asking too much of a simple sports film.

A less predictable decision was the casting of Boston’s own Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the Springbok skipper. Not a natural in the world of rugby, one would have thought; this seems another choice dictated by box office considerations. As it turns out, he’s required to do little more than master the Afrikaaner accent, buff up in the gym so as to not appear out of place on the field, and look suitably intense come game time.

Invictus does avoid another common trap for sports films: the onfield action looks believable and is brilliantly shot. I’m no rugby aficionado, but the intense physicality and brutality of the rugby maul was very convincing to these eyes. There are certainly no Bodyline-type issues, where the actors look so unbelievable as sportsmen that it detracts from the broader story.

Given our very different relationship with New Zealand, there’s a certain entertainment to be had in their portrayal as the film’s arch nemeses. In fact, Australian sensibilities will obviously react to certain plot touches in a very different way than intended for American eyes.

Even if Invictus fails to really expand the envelope of sports or bio pics, it tells a version of a fascinating and ongoing story. Certainly, rugby fans should appreciate the rare opportunity to see their sport in full cinematic splendour. This film may not find a place near the top of the Clint canon, but those in the mood for a rousing tale of sporting triumph could do a lot worse.

Footnote:

As a sideline, this film caused me to reflect on the looming Super Bowl this weekend. Herein lies another underdog story in the making. The recent tragedies of the city of New Orleans are well known, and the city’s football stadium — the Superdome — is central to that tale. If the long-suffering New Orleans Saints could triumph at last, even the hardiest cynic would have to concede that would be a win which meant more than most.

Go Saints!

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World’s Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. John – great review. I loved Clint’s old movies when he was the main man. Heaps of great lines like:

    Clint (the outlaw) – “What do you do for a living kid?”
    Kid – “I’m a bounty hunter, Mr.”
    Clint – “Dyin’ aint much of a livin’ boy.”

  2. Dave Nadel says:

    Haven’t seen the film yet, John, but your review encourages me to see it. It was probably inevitable that the two main roles would be played by Yanks to ensure that the film sold in the States. I am fairly sure that South Africa has black and white actors who would have been capable of playing Mandela and Pienaar.

    That is the one positive for the Australian film industry of the international success of Kidman, Blanchett, Watts, Colette, Rush, Bana, Weaving, La Paglia, Crowe and Neil. Australians now get to be played by Australians (or Kiwis) in American financed films.

    Like you I have been very impressed by Eastwood’s recent work, both as an actor and as a director. Mind you, he has always been a pretty good director. His first film “Play Misty for Me” is still the best and scariest “stalking” movie ever made – and it was made in 1971!

  3. pauldaffey says:

    John,

    I thought Clint’s work as an actor and director was extraordinary in Million Dollar Baby.

    I’m keen to see this new one after reading your review.

  4. John Butler says:

    Dave,

    I agree about “Misty”. And he’s always mixed things up. “Bird”, the Charlie Parker film, is another favourite.

    Dips, “Unforgiven” is a great film. Likewise “Million Dollar Baby”, Paul.

    We’ll just forget about the ones with the chimpanzee.

  5. Richard E. Jones says:

    DAVE: I’m a film reviewer for our community-owned Star Cinema in Eaglehawk. I have a feeling Mandela himself felt that Freeman was the best person to portray him and commended Easwood and producers for selecting Morgan.

    Best move for ancient Clint is behind the camera these days. A vengeful, late-70s geriatric vigliante in “Gran Torino” didn’t quite cut it. Although the thrust of the film itself was admirable.

    And John. Wasn’t it an orang-utan in the monkey movies?

  6. John Butler says:

    Richard

    My mistake, of course it was an orang-utan!

    As for Gran Torino, I’ll beg to differ there. I thought Clint had a nice old time under-cutting his whole Dirty Harry vigilante past.

    Given the long standing working relationship Freeman and Eastwood have, the casting was no surprise. It works OK for the type of film it turns out to be.

    Cheers

  7. John Butler says:

    PS: How did the community end up running the Eaglehawk Cinema? Sounds like fun.

    I suspect there’s a tale to be told there.

  8. Richard E. Jones says:

    LOOK, I put “Gran Torino”in my Top Ten movies of 2009 for fellow Knacker Les Everitt’s website: australianrules.com.au

    It went in his “reviews” section. I slotted in Old Wrinkly Clint and his (eventual) Hmong mates at No. 9 overall, but a fair way behind my Top Five: The Young Victoria, Disgrace, Frozen River, Milk and The Reader.

    The Star Cinema which operates in the Eaglehawk Borough Town Hall was started as a private concern by a lady with a great love of the cinema. She was from one of the North Central’s little towns but found with all the travelling — plus trips to Melb. sourcing film reels — she just couldn’t continue any more.

    So rather than have the whole thing just close down willy-nilly, a group of Eaglehawk and Bendigo community-minded citizens banded together a few years back to form a working committee. And so the cinema continues to this day.

    My community input is to write reviews once a fortnight for the Saturday magazine section of the Bendigo Advertiser. Already this year my wife and I have seen 6 films. All in the cinema — Nova (Carlton), Kino Dendy (city), Golden Twin (Bendigo) and of course, the Star. No, repeat no, DVDs or home theatre viewings! Total per year — between 25 and 30 films.

    It’s very civilised @ The Star. Velvet clad couches complete with cushions, wine and/or beer to sip on. Fans on during the summer heatwaves and wall heaters blazing in autumn and winter.

    Why the Eaglehawk Town Hall as the venue? Well after Jeff Kennett’s council amalgamations the old Borough Town Hall was no longer needed as Eaglehawk fell within the boundaries of the City of Greater Bendigo. And thus began its transformation into a daily cinema venue.

  9. John Butler says:

    Thanks Richard,

    I must check The Star out next time I’m in Bendigo.

  10. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says:

    What I like about this movie – having watched it on DVD last night – is that the All Blacks are beaten in a World Cup final – again!

    Reckon they’ve done a very good job in the casting – the actors all look like the main NZ players especially Sean Fitzpatrick (captain), Andrew Mertens (five-eighth and kicker) & Jonah Lomu (wing) that they are playing.

    Alas, no mention of food poisoning that afflicted the whole AB team for the final…
    every Kiwi will bring this up when you talk about the 1995 World Cup final

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