Friday, December 11, 2009

"Invictus" doesn't give subject the complexity it deserves

* * 1/2 / * * * *

Clint Eastwood can do a lot of things as a filmmaker, but making a great sports movie isn't one of them. Every second of "Invictus" is far too calculated for comfort, rendering his well-constructed film cloyingly over-the-top, as if every moment were conceived from some other movie and then amplified in rich emotional saturation.

Morgan Freeman does a great Mandela impersonation, but he's playing an enthused sports fan. The performance doesn't reach much deeper than mannerisms and imitations, a well-oiled masquerade of a profoundly influential world leader stymied by reverence. He's nearly outplayed by Matt Damon, who disappears into his rugby team captain role - too bad he's not given more to do than deliver pseudo-inspirational speeches and look overwhelmed.

For a movie about how rugby helped shaped nationalist discourse, there's not enough politics and not enough rugby. Screenplay doesn't seem to know how to balance and weld the individual parts in unique ways, leaving many "symbolic" shots to look poorly construed from a TV-movie-of-the-week. At two hours and ten minutes, it drags slowly through its major points, succinctly making them over and over while rarely delving deeper.

Invictus looks great and sounds great, thanks in large part to camerawork by Tom Stern that, as per usual, takes great advantage of negative space and rich color saturations. Editing from Joel Cox shows typical handiness and invisibility, even though there are some fairly obvious sucker punches at trying to elicit emotion. Film also has a nice contrast between the rickety handheld swoop of the rugby matches and the quiet tracking shots in political offices. Lighting is often a little too even for comfort, bordering on washing out many scenes, but the hues generally look fantastic. A surprising problem for the film is in crowd shots - all of them are framed and move like some kind of weird stock footage. They're clunkily inserted in many of the sporting scenes to try and again justify the overarching theme of national unity.

"Invictus" is a perfectly "okay" movie. It's certainly not bad and is perfectly competent in all areas, but it doesn't exactly elevate to any substantial level.

But in a film that should largely be about juxtaposition and melding and contradiction, Eastwood plays it far too ham-fisted and pedestrian. As a follow-up to "Gran Torino," it makes me wonder if he's simply unable to seriously question the complexities of race relations, or if he's just doomed to make good-natured statements about the condition of humanity. He can direct a great performance and orchestrate a pretty shot, but "Invictus" is hollow at its core - it's for rugby fans and Mandela fans. It's not universally inspirational because it's too uneven to successfully build momentum. If this is anything, it's violent - I lost track of how many times I got hit over the head.

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