Scrumdog millionaire

invictus_2009_4126_mediumSaw the new Clint Eastwood movie Invictus on Friday. He directed and produced it, which is usually cause for celebration these days. It stars Matt Damon as actual South African rugby captain Francoise Pienaar and Morgan Freeman as actual South African president Nelson Mandela. Because I can’t stand rugby – to me, it’s a team sport seemingly entirely free of grace and mainly packed with big fellas running into one another – I had no idea South Africa won the rugby World Cup in 1995, but they did, and it was clearly a big deal on two levels: one, they were a bit shit, and two, they were mostly white, a fact that became conspicuous when Apartheid ended and Mandela launched his vision of a rainbow nation. Thanks to Invictus, I now know this. I also know that Pienaar is a man without a personality but with a wife, a mum and a dad, and that Mandela was a bit lonely and a workaholic and liked to have a bracing walk at 4am every day without fail. There’s not a tremendous amount more to learn.

I thought Invictus was underwhelming and dramatically thin. It is handicapped by being a sports movie. Sport movies don’t usually work – certainly not team sports anyway. Boxing has a cinematic quality, so does running, albeit only in slow motion. Football simply cannot be captured in drama, and nor, it seems, can rugby. (I love This Sporting Life, but then again, there’s not that much rugby in it.) Beyond the sport, it’s sort of about Nelson Mandela getting on with taking the reins of power, which involves making black and white security men work together, and attending some meetings, and making some speeches in his iconically slow, measured English. Freeman, who looks nothing like him, makes a decent stab of doing the voice. Damon, who looks nothing like Pienaar, does the same. It’s not so much acting, as impressionism.

Anthony Peckham, the screenwriter, seems so enamoured and dazzled by the iconic celebrity of his two main characters, he doesn’t bother to fill in any of the other ones, and yet, one of the characters speaks very slowly and the other one says nothing of any consequence on or off the field. In order to be swept up by the film’s broad-brushstroke drama you have to be very easily pleased by the fact that post-Apartheid South Africa was nicer than Apartheid South Africa, which in a fundamental sense it was, but don’t expect any subtlety or surprise. The initially awkward white rugby players sit young black kids from a township on their shoulders in a sequence that feels authentically like a bank advert. The white security guards learn to like the black security guards, united not by anything dramatic – as, sadly, nothing dramatic happened to Mandela in 1995, despite the fear of incident at his public appearances and a hokey low-flying aircraft that we know posed no threat – but by, well, getting on with their largely boring work in small offices. I think you are expected to admire and forgive Pienaar’s white family when they take their black maid to the Cup Final, but this presupposes you see it as redemptive rather than patronising, which is how it comes across.

Clint Eastwood is a monumentally competent director and that’s not faint praise. He is not showy or pretentious or tricksy, he does not grandstand, and he famously shoots as little film as he can, but you cannot argue with his best work. I thought Letters From Iwo Jima was brilliant, for instance, as was Unforgiven, obviously: two seriously good genre movies. Invictus proves that he is not scared of big stadium scenes. But he fails to make the rugby matches exciting, resorting to slow motion, naturally, when in a corner, and the obligatory scenes of people watching the telly. Too late he decides to show us the scrum from underneath and turns up the volume on the animalistic grunting, but this seems tokenistic, and what’s he trying to say? That it’s a brute, primal sport? Where has this observation been hiding? This Sporting Life begins under a scrum; its first thought is of the violence and the machismo of rugby. Invictus wants us to buy rugby not as a contact sport, but as a metaphor for community. See how the little black boy is eyed suspiciously by white security guards outside the stadium but ends up celebrating with them when the Springboks win the Cup – this is no more profound than when the grey ash descends across Los Angeles at the climax of Volcano, and, hey, black and white people are turned one colour.

This film’s heart is in the right place, but it’s deadly dull, its 12A certificate earned only because of strong but infrequent language. And, next to District 9, a science-fiction film made in South Africa by South Africans and starring South Africans, it has nothing to say about South Africa beyond facts, figures and cliche. And its two key South African roles are taken by North Americans. Meanwhile, both of these North Americans have been ludicrously Oscar nominated for their work. I admire them both, but this is not their best work, and nominations seem to be forthcoming because a) it’s Clint Eastwood, and b) it’s Nelson Mandela.

Everybody else seems to like it, however, so I must be missing something.


11 thoughts on “Scrumdog millionaire

  1. Andrew, if you're missing something, so am I. I saw Invictus in the States a few weeks ago and thought it came across as an afternoon TV movie. Eastwood made one of the best films of all time in Unforgiven, but now he's coasting. I thought much the same of Gran Torino. Rubbish acting, predictable script and lazy direction. And you're 100% right about this being an Oscar nod for Mandela.

  2. I take it you like District 9 then?! I'd like to think you watched it because I recommended it on your blog about your films etc. of the year, but I can't have been the only person who raved about it, so I won't… Deb Holt

  3. I didn't like the strong accents. At times I couldn't understand what was being said which was very annoying. I've got good hearing and understood everything in District 9, so can only put it down to them not giving a stuff about the international audience.Matt Damon was far too short for the role. He's only 5"10 when Pienaar is 6"3. He looked like the shortest person in the rugby team and filming him from low angles didn't help. It just looked stupid.Also, any bits in the film which got interesting or exciting quickly ended as soon as Mandela opened his mouth and started speaking in that slow calming way of his.timbo

  4. Oh man I am going to see this tomorrow although I don't know why as I suspected just from seeing the trailer that it would be exactly the sort of horrible patronising/forced feel good film that you found it to be.All I can offer to understand my own behaviour is that I decided while back is that I should stop prejudging films from their trailers, oh and also, mainly, mmmmmm Matt Damon in short shorts.

  5. I hated it but still watched the whole thing because I'm a rugby fan and it's a beautiful story. Ditto on the TV movie comment from Rob. Everything was telegraphed, 'now you're supposed to feel this', 'this shows how human he is', 'this symbolises such-and-such'. The acting was wooden, the accents painful at times, with irritating and unnecessary changes to key parts of the true story. Matt Damon didn't look anything like a rugby player despite bulking up and…I can't be bothered actually, it was poor…but so was Gran Torino. A lot of indulging going on with the nominations…

  6. I heard a recent interview with Morgan Freeman saying that he had wanted to do a "mandela movie" for a long time, he put out the feelers and then the script came along.I get the impression that a lot of films in Hollywood get made this way i.e on personality and what sells rather then working from the basis of a solid script.God bless you Morgan but just because you look a tiny tiny bit like Mandela that is no excuse for you to make a rubbish film about him.

  7. I have.Good film pretty gritty.Great performances from Mo'Nique as a welfare scrounging loser, Gabourey Sidibe as the titular Precious (although I am not sure how flexible she is as an actress, time will tell on that one) and you get to see Mariah Carey actually being a normal human being.Didn't dig the fantasy sequences but all in all worthy of your time.

  8. I thought the fantasy sequences were misjudged to say the least, Dara – especially the first one during quite a traumatic incident…But the acting was superb across the board and totally agree on Carey – she was credible, which is way more than I imagined she'd be.Saw Sin Nombre last night – now there was a smashing film.

  9. Thank you Andrew, youve saved me £3.55 for that I am eternally grateful. I thought it looked at lot like you said it is. It also makes me quite sad inside that Freeman and Damon have been nominated for their impressions and Sam Rockwell is completely ignored despite his awesome performance in Moon 😦 While we're on the subject of films, any chance of a Collins and Maconie Movie Club revivial……

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