Friday, June 25, 2010

Maggie 2010: +1 Nelson Mandela, -1 Clint Eastwood

#84. Invictus

It's been a long few weeks of soccer news. Longer still, I assure you, when you have zero interest in the sport, let alone incessantly-posted vuvuzela memes. But, you know what they say--if you can't beat 'em, join 'em--so with this in mind I set to watching Clint Eastwood's Invictus, hoping this great cinematic mind, with the help of an inspiring true story about rugby in post-apartheid South Africa, could spark more interest in me towards field-based team sports as a whole. However, I am sad to say even the great Clint Eastwood, directing a movie with Morgan Freeman as Nelson-freaking-Mandela, with a title named after a poem of all things (this matters because I enjoy poetry immensely), wasn't up to the task.

I was in fact so stunned by the failure of this film to rise above the more tedious attributes of the Heroic Team Sport genre that I had to sit in silence awhile trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Here was a genuine case of a country uniting, after gross tragedy and decades of racially-motivated oppression, through shared appreciation of a national sport, as celebrated on an international platform. How hard could it be to make a real story that awesome, under Eastwood's more than capable hands, into cinematic gold?

My conclusions on this score come down to four key points:

1) Clint Eastwood intentionally leaned on common devices of the genre, but not consistently. You can see this in the way he uses slow motion to try to intensify the final, key minutes of the film's central rugby match. The problem is, these moments aren't joined with the usual adrenalin-pumping fare (i.e. the mad-dash fast-forward, giving viewers a sense of the dizzying immediacy felt by players "in the zone," or consistent rapid cutting of player shots to establish the various tensions between individual opponents in the throes of specific plays). This omission gives the whole of the rugby match a kind of belaboured quality, beating us over our heads with the significance of the game. Also, right down to the final kick, the very musical accompaniment tells us the outcome of each play, so all the agonizing slow motion leading up to those goals doesn't stir fear and hope in our hearts like it should.

2) Clint Eastwood is a master of signature moments, key instances where a character is distinctly drawn within his or her context, but for some reason -- perhaps, again, as a matter of leaning too much on genre expectations -- he offers perhaps one such moment, at best, in Invictus; and for a minor character! (I'm thinking of the scene where a white security detail presents itself to a new black official, who thinks he's being arrested and responds accordingly.) Matt Damon can drink all the cans of defeat he wants, and tour all the prisons he wants, too, but his character revelations in this piece are still nothing, nothing compared to the interior worlds Eastwood so artfully conveys in films like Changeling and Unforgiven. Meanwhile, was it the weight cast by still-living Nelson Mandela's shadow that made it so hard for Eastwood to provide Morgan Freeman, a long-time fellow actor and friend, the direction necessary to draw out more depth in Mandela's portrayal? Or simply the limits of the genre Eastwood elected to work within? I can't answer that question. All I can say is, Eastwood's signature moments just weren't there.

3) The music. Heavens, the music was so uncharacteristic of Eastwood I was gobsmacked. This facet more than any other made me suspect that Eastwood truly wanted to make a sports flick, as opposed to a film in which sport is one of many devices conveying deeper truths about the human condition. Which is fine! Go genre flicks! Except that Eastwood still chose a high-brow approach to the sports film genre by picking a sport and sporting context heavily steeped in resonant ideological context for his North American viewing audience (this should go without saying, so it will), and just as heavily informed by a completely different cultural background. This isn't American varsity football: it's post-apartheid South African rugby! So here more than ever we needed those signature moments, those pronounced entrenchments of central character in original South Africa, to fully understand the difference between this true story of sports-heroism, and the spate of fictionalized instances already over-saturating existent sports film annals. And no, sorry, getting famous Hollywood actors to use South African accents, then tossing in an exceptionally token bus trip through rural slums, just wasn't enough in my book to count.

4) While so many of Clint Eastwood's directorial choices in this piece scream "intentional effort to make a sports film!" so much about the lead-up to the actual sports action seemed a completely separate beast -- and also just plain dull and uninspired, if not wholly tangential. It felt in many parts like Eastwood genuinely was trying for more depth; but so many of those meagre initial plot and character developments simply fell apart about halfway through, leaving me exhausted and without a clear sense of reward long before the main rugby games began. In short, I don't think Eastwood had really made up his mind what kind of movie he wanted this to be; and it showed.

Yes, Invictus is racking up all kinds of award nominations at present. And yes, a lot of Gen X viewers genuinely enjoyed it -- so maybe you will, too! But a) as an avid Eastwood fan, I have to say this wasn't anywhere near up to his standard, and b) despite not being keen on field sports I can already think of one biographical field sport film that, despite lacking the same juicy historical resonance from events like apartheid, and contemporary superheroes like Nelson Mandela, proved one hell of a lot more exciting to watch:

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29. Yep, I said it. It's in Gen X's documentary section, and it even stars Tommy Lee Jones as one of the actual players (Harvard offensive tackle) in the epic 1968 American football game! So if you're hankering for a field sport biopic tonight, consider Invictus, sure! But for the love of whatever on earth is actually exciting about these field sports, consider this alternative, too!

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