Rugby: The Nelson Mandela Story. (Or the other way round.) ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Rugby: The Nelson Mandela Story. (Or the other way round.)

My rating:

Curiously, Invictus is the only movie I've watched in Malaysia that had no BM subtitles. I thought this was an unfortunate omission. TMBF is a socially- and politically-aware Malaysian, although I try to keep my views on such matters out of this blog. (Sometimes I have to try hard.) But it did occur to me that a film about Nelson Mandela and his struggle to unite racially combustible South Africa just might be something that Malaysians would do well to watch.

Well, it is. But only because it's a good film.

Having just been elected President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) turns his attention to the weighty task of nation-building in the wake of the fall of apartheid. Among the many changes that members of his new government want to implement is to strike the team, name and colours of the Springboks - the national rugby team. But where most black South Africans want to get rid of a hated symbol of apartheid, Mandela senses an opportunity, especially in regards to the Rugby World Cup final that his country will host in a year's time. And after a meeting with Mandela, Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) is himself inspired to play for a prize greater than any trophy - uniting blacks and whites in support of the team.

A lot of reviews for this film have been of the opinion that it's generally good, but somewhat heavy-handed. I agree only up to the "generally good, but" part - I think it's not heavy-handed enough. Sure, there are parts that seem to belabour its point on racial unity, such as an early scene in which Mandela's chief of security (played by Tony Kgoroge) protests the addition of white police officers to his team. But what I felt was lacking wasn't more of this subplot, but more subplots like this. During the climactic rugby match, we see scenes of blacks and whites anxiously watching and cheering together, and I'm thinking: wait, how did we get here, when the story started with blacks hating rugby and whites fearful of blacks? This should be a film about how sports unites a deeply divided nation, but we don't really see enough of this nation and how its divisions come together. The canvas is really kinda narrow.

I said should be a film about how sports unites a nation, because I suspect the problem with it is that it's a little confused on the matter. Morgan Freeman, a personal friend of Mandela, has been trying to get Mandela's life story made into a film for years, and in many ways this is an uneasy compromise between biopic and sports movie. There are a number of scenes that seem to belong in the former, such as when Pienaar visits the prison and cellroom where Mandela was incarcerated - but they're an odd fit in a movie about a historical rugby match. And we also see Mandela's estranged relationship with his family, which I thought was a nice way to humanize such a revered figure; but then there's also a weird scene in which he flirts with some floozy at a political shindig, and it just doesn't go anywhere. Pienaar himself doesn't have much characterization other than that he comes to really, really admire Mandela.

But as I said, it's a good film. Whatever the flaws of Anthony Peckham's screenplay (based on the book Playing the Enemy - Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation by John Carlin), director Clint Eastwood and his cast do a terrific job of compensating for them. I can respect Eastwood's decision to underplay the racial themes, really; his direction gives the film a stately grace, but he knows when to turn on the emotional manipulation when it's necessary, such as during the rugby scenes. No, you don't need to know anything about the sport; its bone-crunching brutality makes it as inherently cinematic a game as American football, and if you can enjoy a movie about that then you can enjoy Invictus. What the film does right is playing up the drama of the Springboks' final match against the New Zealand All Blacks, who are portrayed as near unstoppable. The climactic game is as thrilling as any sports movie.

And what else the film does right is casting Freeman as Nelson Mandela. There probably isn't another living actor who could truly play the man, and the surprising thing is that Freeman doesn't just portray his gravitas, but so many other aspects of his personality - his charm, his warmth, his stubbornness, his mischievousness, even his regret at having neglected his family. A film about Nelson Mandela in which Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela may be reason enough to watch it. Matt Damon may be saddled with an underdeveloped character, but he's effective at getting us to root for Pienaar on a personal level. We want him to win the World Cup as much as we want Mandela's dream of unity through rugby to come true. Solid support also comes from a host of African actors, such as Kgoroge and Adjoa Andoh as Mandela's chief of staff.

It occurs to me that, having watched a number of Asian and Hong Kong movies in the past year, I may be developing a preference for their typically broad style of filmmaking. I admit to wishing it had been more forceful, more emotional, more rousing; then perhaps it could've served as the object lesson in racial harmony that I could hope Malaysians would learn from. (Why yes, my political inclinations do lean toward "optimist".) But that's an unfair expectation of Eastwood's and Freeman's film. They took an incredible story and put it to film, and on the whole they did it justice; and even if the film could've been better, the power of the story shines through. And it's all the more compelling because it's true.

NEXT REVIEW: Alice in Wonderland
Expectations: just wanna know what all the fuss is


chicnchomel said...

morgan freeman was born for this role

Anonymous said...


cheap viagra said...

The incredible Matt Damon resemble of Francois Piennar on the film, was amazing to watch, and what can i say about Freeman & Mandela? these two guys must be brothers or something, the similarities are amazing, sure mandela and damon deserves an Oscar!!!!