Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Review: Invictus

I popped in "Invictus" before work yesterday, and I was surprised to find myself still thinking about parts of it today.

It's a great story. Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) -- in his first term as the South African president after having been imprisoned for 27 years -- tries to reunite the country through the national rugby team. He forms a relationship with the captain of the Springboks, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), helping to motivate him to lead the underachieving team to win the 1995 World Cup -- hosted in South Africa -- in an effort to display a reconciliation between black and white Africans on the world stage.

And they did -- defeating powerhouse New Zealand in the final.

But I didn't start to settle into this thing until the scene where Pienaar has tea with Mandela. I may be in the minority, but I'm almost always more captivated by two people simply talking than I am in virtually any given action scene -- and the work of Freeman and Damon here is very good.

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon (Warner Bros. Pictures)
One aspect particularly grabbed me: The two started their conversation sitting across from each other, and as they got into it, Freeman moved to the couch next to Damon. I don't know if this was direction by Clint Eastwood or a calculated move by Freeman, but watch Damon's eyes. They give a quick reaction to this move that makes me wonder if Freeman mildly surprised him, or if it was a subtle character choice to convey his reaction to "Mandela" moving closer.

Whatever it was, this was one of those "blink and you'll miss it" instances of genuineness that I always look for in movies, and I appreciate them every time. Damon has become one of those actors that makes every movie more interesting just by being in it. It's always clear to me that his focus is helping to tell the story, not showboating, and he played this role with an understated intensity, which could not have been done any other way.

(Warner Bros. Pictures)
It's here where the movie starts to pick up. I liked the scene where the team holds a rugby clinic with a group of kids, and the music that accompanied it. Then they start to gain popularity as they knock off their competitors, interchanged with scenes of Mandela having meetings and essentially "takin' care of business."

The rugby matches looked pretty authentic to me, making me think I'd sure as hell be a fan if we had it here, and I'm always a sucker for the obligatory scenes: fans starting to unite behind the team's success, rabid roars and chanting in the arena, and fans in bars around the country celebrating with libations -- similar to the video of United States soccer fans celebrating Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup.

As all this is going on, you start to realize that it's no longer a political motive for Mandela to bring the country together, but a humanitarian one -- one born out of forgiveness. In one scene, a group of Mandela's bodyguards, both black and white who were brought together under racially charged circumstances, start playing an informal game of rugby and having a grand ol' time -- which I thought was nicely done, portraying what Mandela was trying to do with a country of 42 million.

Morgan Freeman (Warner Bros. Pictures)
As you start to see how remarkable a man Mandela is by his actions throughout, Pienaar encapsulates his dedication with a single line as he reflects the night before the World Cup final: "I was thinking about how you spend 30 years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put you there."

The final match was fairly standard, but it was done well. One part shocked me, though, and sent me scrambling to the Internet to see if it had actually happened. A pilot of a commercial jet liner notes to his co-captain that he has control of the plane and chillingly states that "whatever happens next is on my hands." And the jet starts to take a direct route toward the stadium, dropping in altitude ... but it turns out to be a flyover, with the words "Good Luck Bokkes" written on the belly of the plane.

Now, I was praying that this was not something added for dramatic effect, using our fear after 9/11 as a ploy to deliver a bit of suspense. But I was astonished to see that it DID really happen, there was only some dramatic license involved. And I was admittedly ashamed for thinking the infallible Mr. Eastwood would ever pull anything like that.

But with all that, there was one scene that singularly made this movie for me. The team takes a trip to visit the prison in which Mandela was held, and Pienaar steps into Mandella's cell, closes the barred door and imagines life there. As this plays out, Freeman's voice reads the stirring poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley that provided inspiration and hope for Mandela in the bleakest of circumstances.

Matt Damon (Warner Bros. Pictures)
It is a piece that tells you everything you need to know about the person Nelson Mandela is -- it is an affirmation of strength, defiance and the power of conviction that I've not seen put into words so well in very many instances ... and as it echoes in my head a day after hearing it for the first time, it's something I'll remember long after the memory of this movie fades.

William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

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