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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"INVICTUS"


 
Invictus comes as a real surprise, but unfortunately not a good one. When I heard that Clint Eastwood (one of my favorite moviemaking people) had cast Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela in a true story about how the former South African president used his countryís love of rugby to help unite blacks and whites, I thought it sounded like a sure thing. Adding Matt Damon to the mix as the captain of the rugby team was just icing on the cake. What I didnít expect was a film that had no idea how to capitalize on the strengths of this piece of history. Invictus plays more like a generic sports picture than as an inspirational drama.

Eastwood begins with a little history of Mandelaís release from prison and subsequent election victory. The early scenes are fascinating, as Mandela refuses to fire white staffers and even racially integrates his own security force, despite objections from his closest (black) advisors. He doggedly insists that maintaining segregation of any sort will not help the country; joining together will.

One of the most immediate battles he has to fight involves the countryís Springbok rugby team. The all-white (except for one) squad represents Apartheid to most of South Africaís black citizens, which is why they usually root for whoever is playing Springbok. An activist group wants the team to be renamed and have new uniforms as a way of erasing the past. Mandela feels this is a bad idea. The whites revere the team, he argues, so why not try to join together with them rather than doing something that will only engender bad feelings?

To this end, Mandela reaches out to the team captain, Francois Pienaar (Damon), essentially asking him to lead his team to victory in the World Cup so that all of South Africa can be proud. This is easier said than done, as Springbok isnít exactly a great team. I assume it gives nothing away to say that Mandelaís plan works, with people all across the country growing invested as their rugby team begins to do them proud.

I think thereís an inherent problem in any movie made about Nelson Mandela that isnít strictly a biopic: his achievements were so important and so historically significant that itís difficult to portray him as anything other than a saint if youíre also trying to focus on other things. This is one of the biggest downfalls of Invictus. The Nelson Mandela we see here isnít a three dimensional person, but rather a one-dimensional image. Pretty much all we know about him is that heís determined to unite the races, even if it occasionally threatens to make him unpopular. No complexity is ever shown. Heís a savior through and through. While itís absolutely, undeniably true that Mandela is one of the most extraordinary human beings on the planet, you canít help but feel that the film does his legacy a disservice by painting him with just one brush stroke.

Francois Pienaar doesnít come off any better. Imagine that the president of your country comes and asks you to do something that, by all accounts, is not easy to do. How would you feel about that? Excited? Pressured? Scared? All of the above? We never really know how Pienaar feels. He more or less puts on a Golly gee, Mr. President, weíll see what we can do for you, there attitude. Any turmoil he may experience is nowhere to be seen. Occasionally, he makes a grandiose speech to motivate his team. If they were as poor a team as the film tells us they were, one suspects it would take a lot more than some overly written pep talks to lead them to victory.

The last half hour of Invictus shows us the World Cup, and this is where I really started to grow bored. I donít know much about rugby. It appears to be similar to football. My suspicion is that very few Americans know much more about it than I do. The film provides no insight. We arenít told the rules, or how the scoring works, or even whatís happening on the field. Granted, the story is about the fansí reaction, not the game itself, but since almost 30 minutes are, in fact, devoted to the game, a little explanation might have helped me care. If we canít follow whatís happening, it becomes tedious. Eastwood occasionally cuts to the predictable shots Ė empty streets, people gathered around TVs watching, players looking deadly serious Ė yet it all feels familiar and surprisingly without weight. If this really did play a part in racially uniting South Africa, it needs weight.

All of this is not to say that Invictus is a bad film. Iím just focusing on what didnít work about it. Many things do work. Despite not having many notes to play, Freeman and Damon are quite good. The early scenes, showing Mandela starting to implement his strategies (to the bewilderment of his staff) are compelling. A sequence filmed in Mandelaís actual prison cell provides a sense of further enlightenment about what he went through. On every technical level, the movie is well made. And letís not forget that this is, at its core, a fascinating tale, which certainly counts for something.

Given those things, I canít shake the feeling that Invictus should be more dazzling than it is. Done right, the movie would have captivated me. Instead, my mind wandered. It seems like thereís one note being hit here, again and again. The entire flow of the story becomes predictable Ė right up to the Big Game with the important Last Minute Play. Invictus shouldnít feel like just another sports movie; it should feel like a life movie. What a missed opportunity.

( 1/2 out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:

Invictus will be available on DVD and in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack on May 19. It's also available on demand via digital cable, satellite TV, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game consoles. You may also download it via iTunes and Amazon Video on Demand.

While my feelings on the film itself were mixed, the bonus features really make up for things. First off is an awesome picture-in-picture commentary track. The filmmakers and some of the real-life participants show up during various moments to talk about the movie's content. This is informative on several levels, as we learn more about the process of making a movie based on a real event, as well as learn more about the event itself. I was quite impressed with this commentary track and hope to see more like it on future Blu-Ray releases.

"Mandela Meets Morgan" is a 18-minute behind-the-scenes feature, most notable for footage of Morgan Freeman chatting with Nelson Mandela in preparation for the film. But there's also a lot more, including a look at Matt Damon's relationship with Francois Pienaar, as well as an analysis of how the rugby scenes were shot.

"Matt Damon Plays Rugby" is about seven minutes, and it shows us how the actor physically prepared to play the demanding sport.

"The Eastwood Factor" is a short film put together by film critic and Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel. In this terrific piece, Eastwood tours the Warner Bros. lot, sharing recollections of filming. For example, he visits a small shack, used in many films, that was the location of the Southern diner in Million Dollar Baby. He also visits the costume department and sees his famous Dirty Harry suit for the first time in years. For any diehard Clint Eastwood fan (and I'm obviously one of them), this documentary is something to treasure.

Finally, the theatrical trailer for is included.

Invictus fell a little short for me, but this Blu-Ray release is quite impressive. Great care has been put into the production of the bonus features. The film looks and sounds terrific as well.


Invictus is rated PG-13 for brief strong language. The running time is 2 houra and 13 minutes.

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