December 18, 2009

Taking It Home: Invictus

("Taking It Home" is an alternative review style in which I share my thoughts on a movie's themes and how they may relate to my life, while focusing less on the acting, writing, technical aspects, or even plot of the film. It's a collection of the ideas I took home, "because the movie experience shouldn't end in the theater".)

More influential than any stump speech a politician could make... 

While watching Clint Eastwood's Invictus I was reminded of a little-seen documentary a few years ago about the space race. The astronauts interviewed in In the Shadow of the Moon gave fascinating and inspiring accounts of their experience with the outer limits, but the most lasting impression I have is their description of what was happening back here on Earth. As we Americans are reminded every summer, after years of competing with the Soviets to get a man on the Moon, the United States reached the finish line first, on July 20, 1969. We would go on to dominate space exploration for the next generation and ultimately to the present day.

But what wasn't clear to me until In the Shadow of the Moon, and what was reinforced by Invictus, is just how much collective pride a population can gain from what is, on the surface, a meaningless competition. Despite the social and political turmoil of 1969, for example, the United States experienced a brief period of pure, unadulterated joy because we beat the Soviets at a massive global game (more interestingly, according to the film, this American achievement was celebrated around the globe, and goodwill toward the United States peaked at a level not reached again until 9/12/01). The triumph of the South African National Rugby Team might pale in comparison on a global scale, but Invictus still portrays the Springboks' 1995 World Cup victory as an event almost as important as the moon landing - and ultimately more important than the U.S. Men's Hockey Team's 1980 "Miracle on Ice" (most recently revisited in 2004's Miracle).

You may be thinking, "Come on, sports are unimportant in the grand scheme of things and a distracting waste of time and money that could spend on much more important issues!". Tell that to Nelson Mandela (in fact many of his advisors did, as we see in the film). To take nothing away from Mandela's achievement as a black man being elected president in a racially segregated country after half a lifetime in prison, the Boks' World Cup victory was just as important to his political success - even more so, if I may be so bold.

In reviewing the documentary Crude recently, I wrote, "Great leaders, like Fajardo, understand that difficult problems can't be solved overnight, and they acknowledge that the failure to resolve a problem doesn't constitute a failure in addressing one. Sometimes it takes years, and sometimes you don't even see the end of the line, but that doesn't mean the effort doesn't make all the difference." 

This is essentially the same leadership philosophy practiced by Mandela (Morgan Freeman) in this story. He knew that his election would not heal the wounds between Afrikaners and blacks in a post-Apartheid society, and it wouldn't reduce crime or improve the economy, and it certainly wouldn't earn him the respect of millions of Afrikaners who loathed his politics. But he knew the people of South Africa, and he knew how to navigate across their cultural differences.

One of the things I love about sports - maybe the thing I love the most, actually - is that anyone from anywhere can support any team for any reason. Your age, ethnicity, religion, education, occupation, and gender don't matter in the slightest. Sports have the power to bring people together in times of tragedy, and too often the power to create tragedy, whether by overworking little kids on the way to becoming professionals, or simply causing riots and fights between fans. But on balance I see sports as an extremely positive universal of every culture - primarily because they can appeal so universally to an entire culture. Mandela knew this, and in hindsight it's surprising to me that so few of his advisor's didn't.

It's this power of universal appeal that really came through most powerfully for me in Invictus, most notably when the Springboks visited a group of township boys and taught them the game of rugby. Call it schmaltzy, call it heavy-handed, but that's how national pride develops at the grassroots level, and it was the most emotional scene in the film for me, much more so than even the team's championship victory.

I saw these boys transfer their love for one (Chester, the lone black player on the team) to a love for country, and a realization that they have a place in this world, that their lives are about more than what happens on their dusty streets. Although we didn't see the boys crowded around a TV like everyone else in the country, I imagined them beaming with pride on the day of the championship match, arguing and boasting about who actually touched team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). This self-identity translating to national pride is the same sentiment that moved me in Slumdog Millionaire, and the same one that moves me to a great degree for every Olympic Games, and for the FIFA World Cup (held in 2010, coincidentally, in South Africa).

I don't know how strong of a case I'm making for the cultural importance of sports, and I'll fully admit they are not important enough to warrant the multi-billion dollar industry they've come to represent in this country. But history has shown, from Jesse Owens in Berlin to the Springboks on their home stage, that these competitions have the potential to be much more than just a game.

What did you take home?


  1. I just got back from this. Very well put, and I'm glad you did a Taking It Home for Invictus. To delve too deeply into the merits and demerits of the film would seem a waste of time and a case of missing the point altogether. Yes, it's a flawed film in some regards, but it's powerful in all the ways you mention and more. Call it schmaltz or corn if you must, but call it important, too. Though allow me this one nit: I don't know what role Clint had in selecting the music, but he needs to be pulled from that role immediately. The song that played as his helicopter touched down on the practice field was just horrendous. I was cringing it was so bad. Okay, I feel better now.

    "Mandela knew this, and in hindsight it's surprising to me that so few of his advisor's didn't."

    That hindsight also puts on some blinders for us, though. What if the team had failed (miserably or otherwise)? Mandela was taking a risk, and it was one that surely could have backfired, that is, if his involvement and support was anywhere near as much as shown in the film, which I unfortunately must doubt.

  2. Make no mistake, the music in Invictus is unforgivably bad, among the worst in the last few years. I believe Eastwood's son did the music for the film, but I don't think that (the helicopther landing) was an original song of his. Just an awful choice, though. Also, he (the son, Kyle) was one of the players on the Boks.

    All that aside, "To delve too deeply into the merits and demerits of the film would seem a waste of time and a case of missing the point altogether." Very true - to a point (and what I prefer writing these kind of "reviews"). If some details were so bad as to completely overshadow the film's message, they should be pointed out and criticized. But in my opinion Invictus still gets the job done despite its many flaws (the acting not being among them - I thought Damon and Freeman were outstanding). It's a pretty poorly made film that still tells the story it needed to tell.

    Great to point how big that risk was, too. Wagering your political career on a rugby game isn't the wisest strategy, and I make it seem like Mandela was fully in charge and could foresee the outcome. I would believe his involvement and support of the team was as intense as it's depicted in the film, but yeah, if they lose this game it's a completely different story. You gotta call it luck, destiny, or his ability to really motivate a team beyond what they thought they could do.

    And if you want to talk about nits - wow, that last rugby match was painfully long. And could anybody understand the timing, either? It's a 20 minute period, the scoreboard showed 3rd minute and 11th minute when the teams scored, all of a sudden there are 7 minutes left, and then the clock is counting up to 10:00, and that's the end of extra time? I'm a pretty obsessive sports fan and I was completely lost on the timing.

  3. "One of the things I love about sports - maybe the thing I love the most, actually - is that anyone from anywhere can support any team for any reason."

    Well said. You capture the spirit and worth of this film in a very clear nutshell. Despite all its flaws, I enjoyed this film - and although I didn't articulate it in the same way - I guess I was enjoying that element you describe above - how Mandela unifies his people by getting them to cheer for the same team. I felt myself invested in that element at the end of the movie, and I credit Freeman and Damon for solid performances that carried me through to that point. They made me care about what happened even though I knew what was going to happen.

  4. Thanks, Hokahey. I'll make sure to check out your thoughts. Really the acting can't be overlooked; though I didn't mention it here it was a major anchor on which to build everything else. Aside from Freeman and Damon, Tony Kgoroge was great as well as the head of security.

  5. "It's a pretty poorly made film that still tells the story it needed to tell."

    I don't want to open any wounds here, Daniel, but that was exactly what I was trying to say about Gran Torino. ;)

    Thank you for mentioning the length of the final game; I would have, but I didn't want to nitpick any further after what I had said. That was easily my second biggest problem with it. It was interminably long, just a cycle of shots shown over and over and over again (kid outside with cops, people at bar, people at house, Mandela, game, kid outside, etc., etc.).

  6. I'm glad you're able to overlook the bad and see the good with Invictus, Daniel, especially because you were so openly looking forward to it.

    Nitpicking it's numerous flaws really does seem beside the point. It's a terrific story and Eastwood mostly just lets it speak for itself. Cinematically it might not be the movie of the year, but it's hard not to be moved by it.

    I liked how it wasn't a standard biography of either Mandela or of South Africa. It was really about the big picture...yes, I agree it was about the power of sport, though I'd argue it went even bigger than that.

    For me it was about reconciliation over revenge...something 180 degrees from Eastwood's early career...and how Mandela saw the potential for that in sports.

    What I also took from it...and this applies to the USA in that in order for great change, strong people both sides have to be willing to give and take. The way things are right now here, whenever a hand is reached out to the other side, it gets bitten off.

  7. I had decided I wasn't going to engage in any battles on Invictus. After going so many rounds with folks on Gran Torino, which is considerably more problematic, I didn't have it in me to be "that guy" again, especially considering that Invictus is just a poorly made movie, not a hypocritically offensive one. But after reading the conversation above, I've got to ask you fellas, with all due respect: WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?

    How is it "beside the point" to criticize Invictus?

    It's a film! And it's a remarkably poor film, despite having star power in front and behind the camera, despite having major studio support. How is it in any way "beside the point" to mention that? How is it picking nits to point out the numerous faults with this film ... the score, the repetitive crowd shots, the terrible CGI, the terribly simplistic black-white tension that involves a lot of guys staring at one another with goofy "I don't trust you" looks, the on-the-nose/let-me-explain-it-for-you-in-case-you're-slow dialogue, the Freeman performance that is faithful to a fault (spit it out!), the cringe-worthy moment when the mom bumps shoulders with the black maid as if to say, "Hey, you're not a monster, after all!"? Etc, etc, etc. This is what the film is. It's not beside the point. It is the point.

    Now, if the film succeeds in moving you, that's valid. No question about it. If you recognize all these faults and like the film anyway, then great. But I am amazed to no end how reluctant people are to criticize Eastwood films. Above Fletch says: "Call it schmaltz or corn if you must, but call it important, too." OK. Fair enough. But the opposite must be true, too. You can call it important, but please call it schmaltz or corn, or any number of other less-than-flattering things, because that's what Invictus is too.

    To be clear, I'm not trying to take away anyone's enjoyment here. Nor do I mean to suggest that I didn't find anything to like here. (The scene with the Springboks and the kids is irresistible.) But Eastwood's film isn't any more artful than a blatantly manipulative Disney movie, albeit with a pair of major stars. Am I wrong about that?

  8. "Now, if the film succeeds in moving you, that's valid. No question about it. If you recognize all these faults and like the film anyway, then great. But I am amazed to no end how reluctant people are to criticize Eastwood films."

    Bingo. I can't speak for everyone, but I'm certainly not shy. Daniel can tell you how much we disagreed on Gran Torino, for starters. Yes, I recognize the faults but am making the choice to overlook them in favor of the film's moving qualities and other positives.

  9. Well, I must agree here with Jason Bellamy lock, stock and barrel. Virtully not a sentence he says here that do not agree with. INVICTUS is a badly made film, and I love Mandela as much as th next guy.

    That said, I am a dear personal friend of Craig Kennedy's and movie disagreement means little in the grand scheme.

  10. Thanks for the further thoughts. And, to be clear, like Sam said, movie disagreement means little in the grand scheme. I jumped into this conversation not because I don't respect the opinions voiced her but because I do.

  11. Jason, in my own review I didn't hesitate to be critical of the parts of the film that didn't work. It could've been much better in many ways. I'm not an Eastwood fan when it comes to movies he's not in, but for me the story of Invictus was so good, it was enough that he just didn't muck it up too much. Many directors (I'm looking at you Ed Zwick) would've amped up every moment of feeling and just generally overdone it and hit you in the face with it. This is an instance where Eastwood's laid back style benefited the story.

    Gran Torino is another story altogether. I'm a big fan of Eastwood IN movies and I loved seeing one last shot at his Dirty Harry characterization (appropriately aged) so I overlook all the other things. It wasn't easy though. It was a clumsy, awkward and at times openly laughable film. It just happened to deliver everything I wanted it to so it gets a pass from me.

  12. Great back-and-forth here. And Jason, I don't think you were as alone as much as you might have felt about being "that guy" last year; in any event you know as well as I do that somebody needs to play that role for there to be any kind of thoughtful discussion. So...

    Rugby - considering nobody's explained it yet, I'm assuming the game clock was as confusing as I thought it was.

    Gran Torino - yeah, you've kind of got me on that one for a while, Fletch. Maybe I defended it to a fault (and despite many faults), but in my own defense, my Top 10 list last year was based on "the movies that mattered most to me." Most of the time quality matched up to those rankings, but not always. Which leads me to...

    Quality vs. Subject Matter Importance - I haven't reread what I wrote in this post, but (don't hold me to this) I don't believe I made even one subjective comment about the quality of the film. That did come out in the subsequent comments, but depending on you read it, Jason, I think I pretty much said the same thing as you in response to Fletch.

    In fact nobody here is really going to the mat for Invictus anyway, and speaking for myself I think it's a coincidence that there's been enough thematic meat in his last two films so as to distract me from how poorly they've been made. Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River did little to interest me story-wise, for example, so I saw the flaws a lot more. That might sound like a convenient explanation, but it also doesn't mean I think Invictus or Gran Torino were as good as they could have been.

    I don't know if I'm making sense but I think what I'm trying to say is that standard criticism or fun nitpicking can be beside the point in some cases - particularly in the context of a "Taking It Home" approach.

    That said, the CGI was circa-1995 (deliberate..?) and Freeman's teeth were a major distraction. ;-)

  13. If a film works, it works. For me, I pick out technical issues and nitpicky things when the film hasn't otherwise engaged me in some way. If the film can get me caught up in the emotion, I cut it a lot of slack.

    If it doesn't work, I try to identify why. If it does, I try identify things that enhanced it.

  14. "If the film can get me caught up in the emotion, I cut it a lot of slack."

    Hehe, thanks for distilling my long-windedness down to one sentence.

  15. Thank you for giving it a read, Dreher Bear.

  16. That was a very insightful review, Daniel! I think this movie showcases great performances from its cast. Morgan Freeman is very convincing as Nelson Mandela, and Matt Damon shows strength of character as Fran├žois Pienaar. But what I like about this movie is that is shows a great lesson on unity, faith and patriotism.[Wally Howe]


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