Friday, March 5, 2010

oscar Preview Review: Invictus (2009)

What I said before Cinewise:

Sure, it’s prestigious and decorated with award aspiration achievements. But it’s also paper thin and almost completely devoid of conflict. Morgan Freeman’s turn as South African president Nelson Mandela isn’t nearly as intriguing as Frank Langella’s portrayal of Nixon was last year, but it’s still Oscar bate. It’s the role itself that leaves us wanting.

Picking up as Mandela takes office, and opting not to wade through the rocky but archetypal waters of his multi-decade imprisonment, Anthony Peckham’s screenplay focuses on his efforts to unite a broken country through shared support of the national rugby team. Rightfully believing that his decision as a prominent black man to cheer for an almost all-white team (and a bad one at that) will help mend the frayed black-white relations, Mandela enlists the team’s captain (Matt Damon) as an inspirational protégé, and essentially wills them toward victory.
The facts of the story are undeniably interesting, yet the characters behind it are not…at least not as we see them. Having already hurdled his greatest obstacles, Freeman’s Mandela is calm and confident, stubborn in his unrelenting working ethics, and angelic in his vision. When he’s told he is wrong, he proceeds anyway, bowling over opposition with his indivertible will. He has family problems, but the film doesn’t dawdle on those, nor does it really bother to explain what exactly makes him tick. The Mandela we get onscreen is a concept, a symbol. He is not a man.
If the error in Mandela’s character depth is bad, it’s only worse with Damon’s Francois Pienaar. Aside from a few glimpses of his wife and parents, we learn very little about who he is as a person, what he’s done in the past or even what he does on a day-to-day basis, since rugby isn’t a full time job. His only purpose here is to lead the team, to rise to the occasion, and he only barely does that.
And so it goes with Invictus. With director Clint Eastwood at the helm, the film feels classic and time-honored in execution. It may even be, at times, enough to fool you into believing it’s better than it is. But it isn’t. Invictus isn’t a character drama, or a sports movie (since we never really get inside the team, or the game). Like its main character, it’s an idea, a belief statement. Which is all fine and good on paper and in philosophy, but makes for a pretty passive 134-minute cinematic experience.

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