"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."
--William Ernest Henley, 1875
Note: In the following Blu-ray review both John and Chris provide their opinions of the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.
The Film According to John:
When Nelson Mandela became President of a divided Republic of South Africa in 1994, he had one major objective: to unify the country. To the extent that he succeeded, he did so through personal inspiration, figurative coercion, literal perspiration, and, to no small extent according to Clint Eastwood's 2009 film on the subject, rugby.
It wasn't easy after Mandela spent a good part of his life in prison in a country earlier governed by the principles of apartheid--racial segregation--to bring two such contending forces together, a white, previously ruling minority and a black majority, but he tried. As America well knows, you don't erase decades of racial strife in a single stroke; still, Mandela's attempts to use rugby, South Africa's national sport, to unite people was a stroke of genius.
So where does the film fall into Eastwood's long list of successes? It's easy to think of the man as an actor first, but, of course, he's only been a middling thespian (albeit a very popular one) while being a first-class director. Indeed, his directorial efforts just seem to get better and better. I'd personally categorize the films he's directed as good and better. Among the good: "Pale Rider," "Bronco Billy," "Honkytonk Man," "Bird," "The Bridges of Madison County," "Absolute Power," "Space Cowboys," "Flags of Our Fathers," and "Changeling," to name a few. Among the better: "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Unforgiven," "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," "Letters from Iwo Jima," and "Gran Torino," among others.
"Invictus," I'd say, fits neatly into the "good" category.
It isn't for lack of trying or because the subject doesn't deserve to elevate the film to "better" status; it's just that "Invictus" does little to shed new light on the international icon and cultural hero that is Nelson Mandela. Eastwood got his good buddy Morgan Freeman to play the role, and Freeman is, as always, superb. It's just that not even Freeman can inject life into a public figure we already know so well, and the film never attempts to go behind the public persona. Which leaves the sports angle, which comes over pretty well. But do we really need another inspirational sports story, especially one that involves a sport--rugby--not particularly well known to most Americans? In this regard, not even a buffed-up Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African national rugby team, can do much more than act the athletic hero.
Still, based on the book "Playing the Enemy" by John Carlin, "Invictus" is a fitting tribute to a great man and a fine inspirational sports movie. If that's what you're looking for, the movie works. And, needless to say, the movie works on almost every technical level, too. Eastwood has learned in a career in films spanning six decades how to create a scene, develop a sequence, and wring every ounce of emotion from a picture.
So, for me it isn't exactly the movie as a whole that impresses so much as it is a string of small, satisfying moments:
--An early morning walk with Mandela and his bodyguards.
--The tension among the President's black and white bodyguards.
--Mandela's constant attempts at "reconciliation," saying that the "Rainbow Nation" starts with him.
--The quietly appealing musical track, mostly South African tunes, subtly underscoring the action.
--Mandela's insistence that the South African national Rugby team, the Springboks, a symbol of apartheid before Mandela's tenure as President, continue to represent the country.
--Mandela's meeting with the National Sports Council, who want to disband the Springboks, and Mandela's passionate plea to keep them.
--Mandela's belief that sometimes the people are wrong and that it's his responsibility to make things right. "You elected me your leader," he says. "Let me lead now."
--The rugby team's visit to Mandela's old prison.
--A friendly rugby game on the President's lawn among his black and white bodyguards.
--An incident during the final rugby match, outside the stadium, between a young black boy and two white police officers that may seem obvious and manipulative but sums up the spirit of the film's theme.
Who'd have thought Clint Eastwood would make so stirring a sports picture? Oh, and if you're as clueless about rugby as I am, don't worry about it. It doesn't matter.
John's film rating: 7/10
The Film According to Chris:
"He's not a saint. He's a man."
That's the message one secret service guard tells a colleague in regards to Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately the message never got through to Clint Eastwood or Anthony Peckham, director and writer of "Invictus" (2009).
As embodied by Morgan Freeman, the recently elected (in 1994) President Mandela is a visionary prone to dramatic inspirational speeches. Determined to unite the country rather than exact revenge for years of racist tyranny, he sets his sights on the country's divisive national rugby team, the nearly all-white Springboks. The Springboks are as loved by their white boosters as they are disliked by black fans but Mandela believes that if they can win the 1995 World Cup, hosted by South Africa, the entire country will celebrate as one.
It reeks of sports movie cliché, but also happens to be a true story, and the screenplay is based on a non-fiction account by writer John Carlin. Mandela's support of the Springboks is perceptive and controversial; he has to use his inspirational oratory skills to convince an angry committee not to advocate for the disbandment of the team. But as far as a plan goes, "Win the World Cup" echoes the "Simpsons" episode in which manager Mr. Burns cagily instructs slugger Darryl Strawberry to "hit a home run."
All Mandela can really do is engage in a true sports movie cliché this time: the pep talk. He calls in team captain Francois Pienaar (a massively bulked-up Matt Damon) in order to inspire him to, well, inspire his own team. He even uses the word "inspire" about a dozen times just to make matters clear. Apparently not having thought previously about trying really hard to win, Francois rallies the troops to do just that, culminating in the historic upset victory over the heavily favored New Zealand All Blacks (a reference to the team's uniforms.)
Freeman brings with him the gravitas that made him a natural casting choice as God but, saddled with the often stilted, heavy-handed dialogue by Peckham, he portrays Mandela more as a legend than as a man, a symbolic figure who is play-acting an already determined history rather than living in the uncertain moment. He has a ready, eloquent answer for every question and evinces few signs of doubt. He's just waiting for every one else to catch up to his clarity of vision. Limited to lines like "It's not enough. Not now. Not so close!" Freeman can only generate a few empathetic moments like the scene where Mandela lets down his guard and shows genuine joy when the team scores a crucial drop goal.
But getting to know Mandela is not Eastwood's primary interest. He keeps the film narrowly focused on Mandela's support of the Springboks and Francois' determination not to let the president or the country down. Racial tensions can't be ignored, of course, but Eastwood treats them rather perfunctorily by showing the uneasy alliance between Mandela's black and white secret service guards who serve no other narrative function in the film.
It's all about the Cup, and this otherwise rote film springs to life in the championship match which occupies most of the film's final forty minutes. Eastwood creates a stirring sense of dynamism by cutting from the players to the guards to Mandela to cheering fans both at the stadium and in their homes, and even to the sounds of the game echoing through the streets. At least according to Eastwood, the game enveloped all of South Africa and the nifty editing (by longtime Eastwood collaborators Joel Cox and Gary Roach) in this sequence conveys a sense of national scope while also portraying some riveting sports action that becomes increasingly abstract and poetic as the game unfolds. Even for rugby-ignorant audiences, it's involving and, yes, inspirational material.
If only the rest of the film was as inspirational. Damon, decked out in his brand-new sheath of muscle, is completely convincing as the team's captain but until the final game we don't see that much of him in action. After Mandela's "Gipper" speech to Francois, "Invictus" pretty much just marks time until the big match. And as for whether the World Cup win actually fulfills Mandela's dream of uniting the post-Apartheid nation, Eastwood has nothing to say, choosing to end the film with cheering fans and a photo montage over the credits. It's a high note to finish on, but not one with any resonance.
Chris's film rating: 6/10
The Warner video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec to bring the movie in its 2.40:1 aspect ratio to high-definition Blu-ray. They preserved the film's natural film grain, giving the image a small degree of roughness but an overall lifelike texture. Definition is mostly average, although it's not much different from what I remember in a theater. Some close-ups look startlingly detailed, while many others are just pleasantly soft. The transfer maintains the sense of realism I'm sure Eastwood tried to capture in somewhat subdued, never flashy, colors; and probably the only minor distracting element is a little shimmer here and there in closely spaced lined.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is fairly modest, much like the picture. It does a good job with dialogue in the midrange and crowd noises in the surrounds, although there is a bit of bright forwardness to the higher end. Like the image quality, the emphasis here is on realism rather than any sort of "wow" factor.
The first three items among the extras are Blu-ray exclusives. The first is a picture-in-picture analysis of the film with Eastwood, members of the cast and crew, and others commenting in small inserts throughout the film. The second item is the featurette "Mandela Meets Morgan," twenty-eight minutes, where the actor meets the real-life character he plays. The third exclusive item is the featurette "The Eastwood Factor," a twenty-two-minute documentary on the actor-director written, produced and directed by film critic and historian Richard Schickel. In addition, we get the featurette "Matt Damon Plays Rugby," seven minutes, and a trailer highlighting some of the movie's great music.
The extras conclude with twenty-seven scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
In addition, because this is a Blu-ray Combo Pack, we get not only the Blu-ray disc but a DVD copy of the film as well and on the same DVD a digital copy of the film (for iTunes and Windows Media, the offer expiring May 16, 2011).
Eastwood breaks no new ground with "Invictus." It is simply a polished, well-made, and unaffectedly inspiring motion picture about an inspiring individual and an inspiring victory. That the director, the screenwriter, and the movie's two stars were able to spark a well-known story to life is tribute enough to the moviemakers and to the man who inspired them.
"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."