Thursday, January 7, 2010

Nelson Mandela Can't Possibly Be This Boring

Invictus fails, very simply, because it is an ill-conceived bore. I am not taking issue with traditional sports films or traditional political biopics -- both have the ability to entertain and inspire in very special ways. But not this film, which is an uneasy mis-mash of both genres, made with some skill but absolutely no verve by Clint Eastwood, who very plainly had no clue how to make this screenplay interesting.

It has been an interesting decade for Eastwood, who remains and will always remain one of the top three (really, top two, alongside Lord Scorsese) most revered American directors. In the 2000s, Eastwood started with a limp old-guy dramedy, Space Cowboys, and an interesting thriller, Blood Work. He then proceeded to go on the longest string of critical and Academy acclaim of his storied career, hitting a directorial high with Mystic River and then coming out of nowhere to win Best Picture and Best Director for Million Dollar Baby (Mystic might have done the same, but fell victim to the Lord of the Rings juggernaut). He followed that up with his WWII double-dip, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, then an old-fashioned melodrama in Changeling and a modern-day Dirty Harry flick in Gran Torino. In terms of accolades, the decade has been a success. But look again at the majority of Eastwood's work this decade and most of it comes up limp -- way limp. Mystic and Baby both hold up, as does Iwo Jima on a lesser scale. And he got the good Jolie performance in Changeling, even if the film itself was an embarrassing soap opera. After that, Flags of Our Fathers is such a colossal miscalculation it's mind-boggling, and Gran Torino is a simplified, overwrought, unintentionally hilarious disaster. Invictus falls into the latter category, a well-meaning docudrama that gets lost in an expository boondoggle and can't even manage to be as entertaining as a History Channel special on the same subject.

The story is very prestigious, and along with Eastwood's name being attached to the project, it is one of the chief reasons this film has become Oscar bait. After spending two-and-a-half decades in prison, Nelson Mandela emerges to be elected president of South Africa, and facing the seemingly impossible task of uniting people of all colors and creeds, attempts to inspire South Africa's national rugby team, the Springboks, into winning the World Cup. The true-life story is indeed a wonderful, inspiring tale. One would think it would translate into a much more interesting film than Invictus ends up being.

Morgan Freeman plays Mandela, in a cosmic matching of actor and role that should be an automatic Oscar winner, and it is a testament to how underwhelming the film is that Freeman will be nominated but not win the Oscar. His performance is solid and workmanlike, but not extraordinary. The screenplay, by Anthony Peckham (who must feel more at ease writing rollicking action-comedy, since his work on Sherlock Holmes is more successful), simply does not allow for a fully engaging portrayal by anyone, even a great actor like Freeman playing a legendary character like Mandela. Matt Damon pumped himself up to play the Springboks' captain, Francois Pienaar, but left his charisma in the weight room. Once again, a workmanlike performance that barely registers on the scale of engaging human emotion.

Peckham's screenplay attempts to blend the South African political upheaval with the drama of the struggling rugby team, but the story never gels into anything other than a TV Movie of the Week. As a director, most of the blame must fall on Eastwood, who fails to add any clarity or shape to the already weak material, and who seriously has no business directing a sports movie. On the basis of Invictus' rugby scenes, I feel confident in stating that Eastwood doesn't seem to understand rugby and, further, he doesn't know how to film on-the-field action. There is no compelling drama in the film until the final moments of the "Big Game," but that's only because, even as poorly as Eastwood and Co. has explained the intricacies of the game, almost everyone can get excited about "One Last Shot."

Invictus is a disheartening missed opportunity given its wonderful true-to-life inspiration, and it ends Eastwood's topsy-turvy decade with a glaring thud.

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