Senior Editor
12.28.09 14 Comments

(“Shirtless MMMATTT DAAAMON.”  /obligatory)

Clint Eastwood is a hell of a director, but he gives himself quite a task in Invictus.  He has to give us enough background on the complex history and politics of a place where even the national anthem is in five languages, just for the contemporary American audience to understand it, let alone care.  Then, after he’s sufficiently familiarized us  with the complex racial dynamic in post-apartheid South Africa, which has just elected a dynamic speaker with no governing experience to its highest office (relevant!), he has to prove to us that a sport is relevant. And not just a regular sport either, a sport that to most Americans, just looks like a bunch of burly white guys trying to stick their heads up each other’s butts.  *furiously masturbating* Oh, and there’s also the matter of explaining how the South Africa Springboks apparently went from laughingstock to World Cup contender in less than a year with no significant personnel changes. (a montage?)

You catch all that?  Don’t worry, the expository dialog should bring you up to speed.  Exchanges like: “The New Zealand team will be doing the Haka.”
“You mean the traditional Maori war chant?  Yes, thees ees a prrroblem.”

All things considered, Invictus actually does an admirable job of explaining the premise to the outsider without dumbing everything down to the point that it’s annoying and laughable to those of us already familiar with things like rugby, and people with accents.  Morgan Freeman plays a newly-elected Nelson Mandela, who, at least in the movie, wants to use his power for reconciliation, rather than just continuing his predecessors’ oppression of the opposition and perpetuating the cycle.  In this case, that means not firing Apartheid-era staffers and security people, even though they may have been the people killing Mandela’s buddies in the ANC just a few years earlier.  It also means overruling his new commission for sport when they vote to change the Springbok’s old Apartheid name and colors.  The blacks hate the Springboks because the racist Afrikaaners love them; that’s what Mandela wants to change.  Blacks and whites, cheering together!  Can you imagine?

Despite the sappy theme and monumental task of explaining the foreign subject matter, Eastwood does a fine job, with one exception: the rugby players have no personality.

Matt Damon plays Springboks captain Francois Pienaar, and though they do a great job of making him look like a South African rugger (he looks a bit like a stocky Ernie Els), he has all the charisma of a pre-affairs Tiger Woods.  Early on in the movie, Pienaar accepts an invitation from Mandela (not a popular guy in the Pienaar household) to tea.  Afterward, Pienaar’s super-hot girlfriend asks him what the president wanted.  Damon pauses for an interminably long time and then says, “…I think he wants us to win the World Cup.”1

Uh, was that supposed to be a revelation?  You’re the captain of the national rugby team, what’d you think he wanted you to do, build him a dogloo?

I’m not an expert in South African history, so I can’t comment on how sanitized the picture of 1995 race relations Invictus paints is (more on that here) — it didn’t seem excessively bogus to me.  But I have played on three rugby teams in two different countries and I can tell you that none of them were as boring as this pack of stiffs.  It’s much easier to root for a team when they seem humanized and fun; much harder when they sit around watching film of opposing teams, saying things like, “I will break my arm, my leg, my neck if that’s what it takes to stop him,” all full of earnestness.

How many thuper therious comments like that can happen consecutively in a locker room, any locker room, before guys start telling sex stories and snapping each others’ nuts with towels again?  In my experience, it’s three, maximum.  The worst part is that making rugby look fun should be really easy.  There are all sorts of traditions that involve drinking games and camaraderie and singing songs about how Jesus can’t play rugby (because he’s got illegal headgear).  And what about that time I scored a try on an eight-man pick against UCLA, how come you didn’t show that Eastwood, you hack.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to type that last part out loud.  Bottom line, in a movie like this, where we know essentially how the plot’s going to play out just from watching the trailer, the key is charisma, and none of the rugby players have it.  It’s an admirable miss for Eastwood.


1. “Oy thunk he wents us to wen the wirld kep.”

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