Monday, December 14, 2009

Matt Damon & Clint Eastwood with crew & extras filming a scene
in which the Springboks conduct a rugby camp in a shanty town

As a director, Clint Eastwood likes to make well-architected narratives with few loose ends. Films such as Million Dollar Baby & Mystic River have the virtues one might normally associate with short fiction – nothing occurs that does not lead directly toward a conclusion that ultimately should feel “inevitable.” And Eastwood is by now as veteran a director as one can find – his 34 credits (including the forthcoming Hereafter) are not so terribly short of the four dozen acting credits he’s had since he quit his television role as Rowdy Yates on Rawhide & struck it rich with the first of the spaghetti westerns, Serge Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. As one of just three living directors with two Oscars, Eastwood can do whatever he wants. He’s only appeared in one film that he hasn’t directed in twenty years. And if he wants to tell the story of Iwo Jima from two perspectives, one American, one Japanese, he can. I haven’t seen Flags of Our Fathers, but Letters from Iwo Jima, the Japanese half of that pair, benefits enormously from Eastwood’s desire to pare the chaos of war into an intelligible structure.

The story of South Africa’s 1995 World Cup rugby victory isn’t half so messy as the Pacific Theater of the Second World War & yet it presents some complex narrative challenges for Eastwood’s film that it almost gets right. Because it’s such a positive film, with its heart so self-evidently in the right place, you want it to work fully. And yet it’s such a fragile construction at the same time that almost any challenge to the expository house of cards that is being built could cause the entire project to come crashing down. I think it’s a film that some people will love enormously while others will dismiss it as a do-gooder veil tossed over what otherwise is a very predictable sports movie.

In some ways, the film to compare it to might be Kyentse Norbu’s The Cup, a tale of budding soccer fans in a monastery of Tibetan monks exiled in India. Both are heart-warming films that hinge on the social meaning of a sport for cultures in transition. The Cup, which was an indie hit ten years ago, is by far the better movie. And yet Eastwood and star Morgan Freeman have already won one award each for their roles in Invictus (National Film Review) and been nominated for another (Washington Area Film Critics Association), and the awards season hasn’t really gotten under way yet.

Unlike the Iwo Jima films, this isn’t a project Eastwood developed himself. Morgan Freeman bought John Carlin’s book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, and brought people in to bring his dream of a Nelson Mandela film to reality. Two-thirds of this movie are about how Mandela, only a couple of years past his 27-year imprisonment, much of it on the infamous Robben Island, took office and dealt with the fundamental issue that threatened South African democracy – the resentment and desire for revenge of a black population reduced to poverty through Afrikaner colonialization and 46 years of explicit apartheid, and the fears of revenge & marginalization of a white population. Since rugby was the white sport, blacks in the RSA generally preferred soccer. Since the Springboks national rugby squad had been to white Afrikaners what, say, the New York Yankees are to the citizens of New York (sorry, Mets fans), the black population tended to root for whoever was playing  against the Springboks. And the Springboks had just one “colored” player on its squad at the time, Chester Williams.

Much of this part of the story is told not by focusing on Mandela directly, but instead on his security detail. One of the first actions on the part of Madiba – as Mandela is widely called throughout Africa – was to blend his own African National Congress (ANC) security detail with the white team that had previously served the last Afrikaner president, F.W. de Klerk. This gives Mandela his chorus narratively, particularly as the ANC members have to explain Madiba to the Afrikaners & they in turn explain rugby to the ANC team. It also sets up a subtext of potential assassination that haunts most of the picture, upping the stakes for many of the actions Mandela takes, from his daily predawn walks to his public appearance at the World Cup finals.  

But Mandela wants people – especially investors from the US, Japan, Saudi Arabia & Taiwan – to see him surrounded not just by ANC veterans, but by whites as well. And what better, faster way to make that impression than to ensure that his security team is blended. Then he prevents the national sports authority from stripping the rugby team of its hated Springboks name and green & gold colors. He wants Afrikaners to know that what is important to them will continue to be important to South Africa. In fact, he goes further, inviting the captain of the team, Francois Pienaar, to his office for tea. Pienaar (who is not the Springbok’s coach, but more the equivalent to, say, the role Derek Jeter plays with the Yankees) is very much a jock & his family, particularly his dad, is perfectly willing to use the worst racial epithets & stereotypes in front of their black housekeeper. What, Mandela asks Pienaar, can he do to help the Springboks win the World Cup next year? The finals will be held in South Africa.

Pienaar is played by a bulked-up Matt Damon in a role that feels like an extension of Private Ryan, the basically patriotic, open minded but not exactly intellectual character of Stephen Spielberg’s film of D-Day & the days thereafter. And the actual change that we see & feel in the film is figured more than anything by the changes we see in Damon. It’s a difficult task, but one for which the mostly muted Damon is well suited. In the story as told here – Chester Williams’ autobiography has a version at odds with this one, tho he served as the film’s rugby advisor  – Pienaar gradually gets his teammates to grasp how their role transcends just rugby. The team gives rugby clinics in the slums – to much grumbling by the players, many of whom appear startled at the corrugated tin huts where so many of their neighbors live – and the morning after a major victory, they go for an early run that leads to a boat that takes them out to see Robben Island. Damon’s best moment in the whole film comes in Mandela’s own cell, as he reaches out in either direction with his arms and realizes that he can just about touch all the walls. And that Mandela lived there for many years (18 in fact, tho the film makes it sound like 30).

Gradually as the film proceeds, the focus shifts from Mandela to the team and its unlikely series of successes to reach the championship match. Eastwood is remarkably faithful to the actual events of the title game itself, which goes into overtime before somebody other than Pienaar kicks the winning shot. And – perhaps the very best thing about Invictus – it doesn’t over-explain rugby. I don’t understand the sport, but I learned a fair amount just by watching – tho not enough to pretend I really get it. The absolute eroticism of these muscular guys locked arm-in-arm, head-to-head is completely apparent from the final rugby match, with amped up sound effects and film speed slowing down & speeding up so that we can tell who is doing what.

Perhaps nothing signals more thoroughly how these parts of this film are stitched together than the one extraneous detail Eastwood feels he must include, the explanation of the absence of Winnie Mandela. We have maybe three, maybe four scenes in which Madiba’s unhappiness at her absence and the absence of his children is underscored, but they have nothing to do with either half of the plot, save perhaps when Mandela declares that his family is all South Africa now. But if these scenes don’t have a narrative function, they do play an important role in the film itself. They are the only moments here in which Nelson Mandela doesn’t appear thoroughly Christ-like in his beneficence and forgiveness to the monsters who ruled South Africa before him.

And this is the real challenge of Invictus, how to make Nelson Mandela seem like a human being. It stuns almost everyone – from the Afrikaners in his security detail to the ANC members in the sports union to Pienaar – how somebody who was caged for so many years in such a small cell and permitted out only to break rocks in the lime quarry (the film passes over the worst aspects his imprisonment) can so consistently reach out and preach forgiveness. Nelson Mandela, one suspects, got much further in his presidency than anyone anticipated simply because nobody knew quite what to expect.

And this is where you will either buy the film or not, as the case may be. I’m inclined to buy this, but then Mandela is one of only three living presidents I’ve ever seen, and the sole one where I actually made an effort to do so.¹ That he even survived his captivity was something of a miracle.² That he lived to lead his country is even more of one.

It is impossible to watch this movie and not think, of course, of all the compromises the Obama administration has made in its first year in office – with Wall Street, with the hawks in the Pentagon, with the insurance companies on health care. I’ve felt much of this year as tho the American people thought they’d elected Václav Havel and what they’ve gotten was Alexander Dubček. It’s a significant and unhappy difference: the former was a transformative figure, the latter merely a reformer of the Bad Old System. But every single action Mandela is seen as taking in this picture can be read (and is, in several instances) as giving in to the Afrikaners, who control the military, the police & the economy.

A word, finally, about the title and the poem by William Ernest Henley, a minor 19th century British writer whose major contribution to world culture was that his daughter, who died at age six, had difficulty pronouncing words and called family friend J.M. Barrie “fwendy-wendy,” from which he coined the name Wendy he gave to the female character in Peter Pan. Invictus” is a cringer of a poem, tho its sentiments are noble (and it is all about sentiment), and it apparently gave Mandela some comfort on Robben Island. But it has very little to do with the story itself and is mostly a mechanism for letting us know that this film is (a) important and (b) uplifting. It’s one of those things that tells you that all is not perfect in this film you very much would like to like.


¹ The others being Corazon Aquino of the Philippines and LBJ.

² Something Mandela credits Ron Dellums for making possible, by making Mandela’s imprisonment an issue in American politics & foreign policy. No matter how badly Dellums muddles in his role as mayor of Oakland, he will always have accomplished that.