Invictus (2009) dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon
By Greg Klymkiw
Great screenwriting - and I mean TRULY great screenwriting is in such short supply these days that when you come across a picture as exquisitely written as "Invictus" you're more than likely, as I was, to second guess your impulse to bestow the necessary laurel leaves upon it. Therefore, wanting to make sure I wasn't entirely out of my mind after the first taste, I went to see the picture a second time the very next day and was relieved to discover that on this sophomore viewing, it was as rich and dramatically satisfying as the first. There are, of course, many reasons for this: Clint Eastwood's direction, a fine cast headed by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon and the sort of sumptuous production values one naturally expects from a major motion picture.
And then there's the writing.
With this second helping of "Invictus", I was even more impressed with Anthony Peckham's great screenplay. It is pure meat and potatoes writing of the highest order. As a script, this is no hipper-than-than-hip Charlie Kaufman word-wanking groove-ola-fest, nor is it a James-Cameron-like hodge-podge of every genre thrown into the blender to serve up a mess of special effects. It's a straight-up, classically-structured, old-fashioned story that's actually ABOUT something - REALLY about something. It's replete with food for thought AND works as rousing, thrilling, exciting and inspirational entertainment. In fact, it might actually be what the youth market needs - a movie designed by a team serving the interests of a director who is old and wise enough to be everybody's grandfather.
Clint Eastwood is the father and the grandfather of us all. He might actually even be Jesus Christ Almighty! No, let's make that God!
Eastwood, as if he has anything to prove anymore, proves that he's as great a filmmaker as the very best America has delivered. And, with Peckham's solid script, he delivers a profoundly moving and intelligent story. Adapted from John Carlin's non-fiction book "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation", it focuses upon Mandela's first order of business as President of South Africa after the fall of Apartheid - to bring the country together and to find a way of crossing the divide of race, of colour and to hold to a process of reconciliation rather than revenge.
The film proceeds to detail Mandela's belief in using the country's national rugby team (the Springboks) as the primary tool and symbol of a united front. He has his work cut out for him though since there was a long, deep-seeded history of the Black population intentionally refusing to cheer for their home country. As the team represented South Africa and its subjugation of the nation's Black population, the Black rugby fans would lavish cheers and applause on every OTHER nation. After the fall of Apartheid, this does not change. In fact, the hatred for the green-and-gold-uniformed Springboks becomes even more bilious. Even the White population begins to lose faith in the team since under the leadership of its captain Francois Piennar (Matt Damon), the overwhelming effect of this hatred crushes their morale and the team experiences one embarrassing defeat after another.
Mandela urges his sporting counsel to have faith in the team and he begins a deep courtship/friendship with Piennar, offering mentorship, an almost spiritual guidance and, in an odd way, a bit of side-coaching. With Mandela's near-obsessive support, the Springboks miraculously claw their way out of a deep hole and eventually face the mighty New Zealand All Blacks who have brutally decimated every other team in the world. The showdown has the added resonance as the 1995 Rugby World Cup game is being hosted by South Africa and the eyes of the world are aimed squarely at a country on the verge of major changes.
One of the nice things about Peckham's screenplay is the deft way he manages to focus on Mandela, while at the same time, peppering the story with rich characters at every turn - even down to extras. There is absolutely no on-screen individual who is NOT given an engaging purpose to support the story's forward movement. We get vivid, information-packed snapshots of everyone in Mandela's sphere - from secretaries to assistants, from bodyguards to chief bureaucrats and from visiting dignitaries to domestic politicians. Furthermore, we get colourful portraits of Piennar and his family (including their Black domestic), Piennar's teammates and most extraordinarily, two small, but important characters (verging on being background extras) during the climactic game where we see a coming together of Black and White.
While sticklers might have a problem with seeing all the country's problems solved with one rugby game, both Peckham and Eastwood know there are two higher purposes - to present a general plea for unity amongst race, creed and colour while delivering thrilling, rousing entertainment of the highest order. Eastwood as both an actor and director truly understands the notion that there are ultimately no small parts and Peckham's script provides a great opportunity to fulfil this.
Peckham's screenplay brilliantly takes this one slice of Mandela's life and infuses it with enough details that we get a magnificent snapshot, not only of Mandela's existence up to that point, but a very good idea of the during-and-after of Apartheid. In retrospect, there are a few moments that are obviously expositional, but it is to the screenplay and Eastwood's credit, that the film never wears its exposition on its sleeve while we're actually watching the movie. Even when it threatens to rear its head during the movie, Peckham quickly engages us in some expertly wrought detail that moves us ever-forward. Exposition is just fine in ANY movie, it's only when we feel it and/or see it working that it's problematic.
While the script itself plays a tiny bit fast and loose with actual events, it at least does so in the spirit of said events. (It is a movie, after all, and needs to compress such matters effectively, so long as it does not take us out of the drama as we watch it.) For example, only a persnickety egghead would quarrel with the fact that the title not only represents its meaning in Latin, which is "unconquered", but is used as a dramatic element of the film in that it's the title of a poem Mandela used to keep himself going in prison and which he gives a copy of to Piennar as inspiration. In reality, it was an altogether different poem that Mandela used in real life. Big deal. It works perfectly here, and most importantly, for the story that's being told. As that great line from John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" reminds us: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." (Note to all burgeoning writers everywhere: great drama exposes truth even when you need to bend the truth to create great drama!)
Great drama is, of course, what Eastwood's name has become synonymous with. His direction crackles with excitement. Many critics unimaginatively fall back on the word "stately" to sum up Eastwood's mise-en-scene. While there is definitely a majesty to much of Eastwood's work, it's so much more than that. Having been mentored by some of the best directors in movie history, Eastwood is more than a merely proficient director. He has learned wisely and well, but also knows enough to use that mentorship as a springboard for his own controlled, yet ultimately dazzling approach to the material. Yes, he has his camera exactly where it should be for virtually every dramatic beat, but the work is infused with such a strong, clear voice, it's apparent that Eastwood is ultimately a born-filmmaker.
Given Eastwood's own prodigious talent and experience as well as being mentored by the likes of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, it's no wonder that this particular inspirational tale of mentorship appealed to him and why he attacks it with the frenzy of a zealot.
When we get to the final game, it becomes even more apparent what a great filmmaker he is. Treating the game like a massive action sequence - one of war, one of guts, one of determination - Eastwood creates scenes that had me and the audience trembling with excitement and mounting tension and finally, pure orgasmic elation. Even though I knew the outcome, I somehow forgot about all that and sat on the edge of my seat, raptly paying attention to every detail and occasionally needing to almost look away when the suspense became too unbearable and, I must demurely admit, to finally cheering the team on with the same gusto that has struck me very few times at the movies. (Those moments of pure animal savagery on my part are still vivid in my memory and include Charlton Heston barking the "damn, dirty Ape" insult to the gorillas in Franklin J. Schaffner's "Planet of the Apes", the sweet-faced children in Mark Rydell's "The Cowboys" as they extract the most vicious, brutal revenge upon the killers of John Wayne's character - most notably when they allow Bruce Dern to be dragged to death by a horse, when Will Sampson as the Chief in Milos Foreman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" manages to wrench the huge marble sink out of the ground and use it to crash through the windows of the asylum and escape and, most recently, when Sylvester Stallone single-handedly butchered hundreds of Burmese infantrymen during the climactic bloodbath of "Rambo".) With this in mind, I'll allow you, dear reader, to see "Invictus" and guess for yourself which extraordinary sequence during the final game had me releasing spontaneous "huzzahs" and applause.
"Invictus" is a wonderful movie! Eastwood keeps delivering the gold and at this rate, I pray for the sort of miracle that will keep him going until long after I'm gone. Though, even better, is hoping he will at least make a few more movies with screenplays as magnificently wrought as Peckham's. Great directors can only be as great as their collaborators and the whole kit and caboodle can only really be as great as the script.