Watching a sport you’re unfamiliar with is always like watchingCalvinball, the game from Calvin & Hobbes where they make upthe rules as they go along.
A single match of cricket, for instance, can go on so long players areencouraged to marry between innings so their eventual children canreplace them in the crucial late years of the contest. For ourinternational readers (I talk about Peter Jackson so much I’ve beenlinked to by a New Zealand culture blog), are you aware baseball wasinvented by a primordial race of giants and the way we show ourreverence for their ancient culture is to flood our bodies with somany steroids and cow hormones that we may, in time, grow to look likethem?
True story. It’s a bold choice, then, to make a Hollywood movie aboutrugby, a sport understood by no more than eight hundred Americans (andthe very fact they understand it is reason to suspect they’re not thegood kind of American). Fortunately for them, Invictusis about much more than what appears to be a 30-person wrestlingmatch.
Morgan Freeman (as Nelson Mandela) has been released from prison, seenblacks get the vote and been elected president of South Africa.Facing a hundred different problems, including the stark racialdivisions of a post-apartheid state, he’s in search of something thatcan help unify his splintered people.
He sees a potential answer in rugby. But the South African rugby teamis terrible. With a year until the World Cup, Freeman approachescaptain Matt Damon with the hope Damon might lead the team — beloved bywhites, jeered by blacks — to glory the entire nation can take pridein.
If it isn’t outright illegal to hate a movie as inspirational as this,it’s certainly frowned on. On the social unacceptability scale, it’ssomewhere between acting better than people who own TVs and publiclyadvocating everyone over the age of 60 be converted into down-homechunky grandma stew.
Not that I at all hated Invictus. Nelson Mandela might be thepart Freeman was born to play: Mandela himself has said Freeman’s theonly actor who could play him, and Freeman beautifully capturesMandela’s dynamism, charm, and nobility of spirit. He nails thepeculiarities of Mandela’s lovably Frankensteinian posture, too. Thenagain, after you’ve played God, you can probably do anything.
Unfortunately, Freeman’s the only character who stands out. About allwe know about Damon is he has big muscles and an equally big heart,apparently. Presidential bodyguard Tony Kgoroge has some nice scenesbut gets lost in the shuffle, too.
The sports angle doesn’t add up to much, either. This may be due tothe fact I know less about rugby than I do about breedingwalruses--though the movie does provide some sly instruction on thesport’s rules--but except for the big game, director Clint Eastwood’sshots feel ironically bloodless, rote depictions of sweaty dudescolliding and then shouting “We won!” It just isn’t all that visceral.
In its defense, Invictus is about a lot more than BizarroFootball, and it doesn’t shy away from some pretty heavy racialtension. Other than a regrettably earnest pop song or two, Eastwood’shandling of the skittish subjects of hope and reconciliation iscareful and earned. (While we’re on the subject of music, however, itdidn’t help that Invictus’ main score sounds exactly like theone from Dead Alive. It’s a little distracting to think MorganFreeman might have to drop blazing lawnmowers on zombie babies at amoment’s notice.)
It says something about the events the movie was based on that afterall those flat characters, anemic contests and general lifelessness,the final game ends up so moving and dramatic. Still, Invictusmay be an important movie, but it’s not an especially good one.