Invictus (2009)

Jan 1st, 2010

Overcompensation is human nature.  Just ask a high school principal or an ER doctor.  Whether it’s a developing teenage male whose manhood has been challenged or a driver whose lost control of his vehicle, we humans tend to overcorrect and land ourselves in the infirmary.  And considering his recent string of conspicuously racially themed films, it appears that old Dirty Harry may just be human after all.

There is no question that Clint Eastwood is a talented filmmaker.  From “Mystic River” to “Letters from Iwo Jima,” his work is generally well-paced, expertly directed, intelligently edited, and teeming with elite performances and breathtaking cinematography.  But some, including director Spike Lee, have questioned his sensitivity to racial issues.  Combine his controversial comments to Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine that we should laugh at racial jokes with Lee’s accusations that “Flags of Our Fathers” deliberately omits African Americans from World War II, and you’ve got a director with something to prove.

In last year’s “Gran Torino” Eastwood not only made an overtly anti-racism film, but he took on the lead role himself wherein he is transformed from an unpleasant bigot to a friend and savior of racial minorities.  He ups the ante with “Invictus,” tackling one of the world’s most recognizable racial injustices — apartheid in South Africa.

The film, detailing newly elected president Nelson Mandela’s role in tasking the national rugby team with winning the 1995 World Cup to unite the country, is expertly crafted. Tom Stern’s cinematography is gorgeous and Eastwood’s direction is almost always assured and deliberate. Matt Damon handles his South African accent well and does the real captain of the Springbok rugby team, Francois Pienaar, justice. Morgan Freeman delivers an Oscar-caliber performance as the embattled Mandela.

But Eastwood’s eagerness to prove his distaste for racism derails the narrative. His efforts to depict the ugliness of apartheid register as oversimplified strings in the hands of a puppet master. We’re only shown the disparity between the races so more glory can be heaped upon the already deified Mandela. There’s no probing of the real living conditions or the dire situation of South African blacks, only hasty flyovers of shanty towns and a few shots of dusty soccer fields littered with ragged-looking youth.

To top it all off, Easwood’s dramatization hails the white rugby team as the heroes who united the country, conveniently omitting the fact that the Springboks remained defiantly unreformed in the years following the World Cup.

Its fairytale simplicity combined with some badly botched musical cues renders “Invictus” an impotent shell of what might have been a harrowing examination of a watershed moment in South African history. Hopefully this well-meaning overcorrection will satisfy Eastwood’s detractors so he can get back to making the kind of uncompromised cinema he’s capable of.

Score: 3/5

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