I may not be a huge fan of sports in general, but I’m learning. I root for only two professional teams, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Pittsburgh Steelers. One by choice, the other I’ve grown to love circumstantially.
Sports movies on the other hand, I seem to have a secret soft spot for. My favorites range all over the map – from Caddyshack, Happy Gilmore, Any Given Sunday, Tin Cup, Major League, Kicking and Screaming, Mean Machine, and Shaolin Soccer, just to name a few.
Films about politics I am even less inclined to enjoy unless they bring something more to the table or consist of a great story to begin with. Some of these favorites include Frost/Nixon, In the Loop, Dr. Strangelove, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Last King of Scotland, and it may be a stretch, but I’d even go so far as to include Election.
Clint Eastwood loves to bring to light racial tension, none more so than in his last film Gran Torino. A sports film coming from the man who portrayed Dirty Harry so long ago could seem like a surprise. Nevertheless, as a director, Eastwood has been in Hollywood long enough that it’s pretty evident he can get away with just about anything.
Matt Damon seemed to be everyone’s last choice when he was given the role of Jason Bourne in the Bourne trilogy but managed to prove himself not only a charismatic leading man but also a bona fide bad ass. If you thought his prowess was impressive as Bourne, just wait until you see him plowing the field as a rugby player in Eastwood’s sports-meets-politics combo, Invictus.
With Anthony Peckham adapting the novel Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation by John Carlin, we begin with Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) being released from serving 27 years in prison after being imprisoned on Robben Island for sabotage. Skip to Mandela being elected President of South Africa as an hour-long history lesson follows where we see Mandela coping with apartheid spread throughout his beloved country.
Mandela comes up with the idea of using South Africa’s Springboks rugby team to win the 1995 World Cup to unite the country. Mandela enlists the aid of Francois Pienaar (Damon) to lead the team to victory in spite of them having a horrible record.
Here’s where the faults heavily lie. By focusing most of the run time on the political aspects then trying to intermingle the sports angle midway, it loses focus and the rugby aspect is never fully realized enough to merit any true importance. Also, anyone looking to understand the crazy game of rugby should look elsewhere as any kind of explanation of the game never happens. Audiences will have an easier time figuring out how to play whackbat watching Fantastic Mr. Fox.
At least we get to learn where the film’s title comes from. I won’t spoil that as it’s one of the more emotional moments of the film. However, most of the audience is surely partaking of this film for its incredible acting pedigree. While Morgan Freeman is probably the only convincing big name star that could pull off such a great portrait of one of the world’s greatest leaders, you never forget you’re watching Morgan Freeman. His cool demeanor and over-used voice shine through in almost every scene.
When it comes time for Oscar nods, he’s more than likely to be nominated, although the true winner should be Matt Damon. While his oversized muscles are a sure sign of his training under Chester Williams at the Gardens Rugby Club to prepare himself for the battle out on the field, he never once lets his own persona take over (Leonardo DiCaprio, take note). Engulfing an ever-convincing South African accent and displaying a sheer level of athleticism while giving us a fully realized portrait of what could have been belittled to a clichéd caricature shows just how far young Good Will Hunting has come.
The photography keeps everything well focused whether it’s quiet office meetings or out on the field and the score keeps the mood intense thanks to Michael Stevens and Kyle Eastwood, Clint’s son. Speaking of the photography, there’s an outstanding sequence involving a low flying airliner that at first brings great fear and then at the last second winds up as a great joke. Whether it really happened or not doesn’t matter as the moment works beautifully on film.
While it may not get the mixture completely right, at least the two leads give their all and never try to one up the other when onscreen together. As a sports movie it falls a little short, which is a shame since that’s what some of the advertising is suggesting it is. What we truly have is a portrait of a time that should never be forgotten — even if some misdirection is being used to put butts in the seats.
Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures