Sunday, February 28, 2010
Invictus (Clint Eastwood, 2009)
Winner takes all
Always felt Clint Eastwood, possibly one of the oldest, longest-working, most respected American directors still around, was too problematical. Always thought he never got out of the shadow of his true masters, Don Seigel and Sergio Leone (yep, Eastwood's star shines brighter than Leone's now--who knew then, when he directed his first feature, Play Misty for Me (1971)?). Always thought he was afflicted with that most fatal of diseases, good taste. Always thought his most awarded work was flawed, in one way or another (felt Mystic River (2003) didn't have a hard enough edge; Million Dollar Baby (2004) was too sentimental; Letter From Iwo Jima (2006) presented a too-soft picture of the Japanese warrior).
That said, he's a prolific, consistent filmmaker, and out of his large output, there's bound to be something that pleases. Felt Unforgiven (1992) was lean and modestly moving. Felt Gran Torino (2008) to be an amusing, largely unassuming, poignant final statement (not his final as it turns out, but poignant nevertheless). Think A Perfect World (1993) was his best work--about half of a great film, with maybe one indisputably great scene (if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about).
With Invictus (2009), his thirty-fourth film, one wonders--will Eastwood glide gracefully under the radar or will he (like I feel happens when he makes his biggest 'statements') sink under the weight of his own earnestness? Thankfully the film takes its cue from Morgan Freeman's sly performance as Nelson Mandela--fresh out of prison, and freshly elected into office, he takes his morning jog and confronts the morning edition headline on a newspaper: “He can win elections, but can he govern?” “It's a fair question,” Mandela tells an angry reader.
It's not a complicated story to tell; what makes it challenging is keeping a sense of proportion around Mandela (active in politics since 1948; sent to prison for about twenty-seven years; freed, won the Nobel Prize, and became the first black president of South Africa), one of the most outsized heroes in recent world history, and keeping a sense of clarity about what he was trying to do. Eastwood has Freeman depict Mandela not as a starry-eyed idealist but as a weary pragmatist who understands how people think and feel and is willing to take risky, even unpopular measures for the long-term goal.
Hence his treatment of the problem: what to do with the white Afrikaaners? They have lost the election, but they still hold considerable power (much of the country's economy and military). A policy of retribution would alienate them, perhaps even spark a civil war; a policy of appeasement would alienate his own political base. Mandela opts for a sideways move, looking to the somewhat apolitical arena of sports for an answer: the Springboks, the South African rugby team, as a sign of unity and of South Africa's new identity in the world arena.
Not that easy to do; for one thing, politics has a tendency to contaminate all areas of life, even sports--the Springboks were thought of as a symbol of white supremacy, and the game of rugby a sport only white South Africans played. Mandela steered against popular sentiment to embrace the sport and team, and Eastwood records this painstaking process as only a careful carpenter, a builder of straightforward narratives, can do--little by little, detail by detail, with a deliberately determined pace.
Perhaps one way Eastwood has managed to maintain consistency throughout his career is by carefully picking his material. He does take risks--not all his films work (I'm thinking of his recent Changeling (2008) with its ham-handed treatment of female oppression); but even the failures teach him something and strengthen his skills as a director, so when one comes along that seems tailor-made (like I believe this one is), he has enough game to swat it out of the ball park.
That's half the story told, the to my mind more interesting part (I love how Eastwood peppers Mandela's storyline with suggestions that he's had a complicated private life); Eastwood also tells the other half, the sports half, led by Matt Damon playing Francois Pienaar, captain of the Springboks. Much publicity has been spent on marveling how Damon mastered the Afrikaaner accent, considered one of the most difficult in the world (sounds okay to these inexpert ears, but then so did Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond (2006); I did like the accents in John Boorman's In My Country (2004), and while Brendan Gleeson's accent slipped in and out, it didn't stop him from giving a powerful performance), but when all is said and done, Pienaar's is the supporting role, in a story of secondary interest. Eastwood seems to recognize it too--he sketches Pienaar's character, and uses rugby sequences sparingly, saving the most coherently shot and most detailed depiction of the game for last, the climactic battle between the underdog Springboks and the mighty New Zealanders in 1995. The victor is a matter of public record of course, and of course in sports movies you know who's going to win (the only picture to actually surprise me with its conclusion was Michael Ritchie's The Bad News Bears (1976)). Eastwood doesn't entirely wipe away this handicap with the razzle-dazzle of his filmmaking (he pretty much shoots everything with a handheld camera, cuts to build tension, so on and so forth) but hopefully by this time you've been so caught up in the film's larger narrative--that of Mandela trying to bridge the gap between two political powers, two races, a divided nation (of course this is Eastwood's open letter to Obama)--that you find yourself cheering anyway.
First published in Businessworld, 2.18.10