Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Political Football: A Review of Invictus

We are in the last week of our two-month South African adventure. This is the stage of a long trip when the desire to squeeze every last drop out of the experience is in active competition with the urge to just throw away all your filthy clothes, get on a plane and go home. Now.

And at this moment, your favorite Radical got a nasty stomach flu, and was unable to do anything at all.

Except go to the movies, where we saw Invictus. This is the new film directed by Clint Eastwood that stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African national rugby squad, the Springboks. It memorializes the year after the historic election in which Mandela took office backed by a resounding majority of South Africans, most of whom had voted for the first time in their lives. It is a self-consciously uplifting movie, in which swelling music cues the viewer to moments of high emotion, even if little in the script has given you anything to be emotional about.

If you have seen the movie you might say: what script? I'm not sure I would have had a clue what was going on if I hadn't been reading memoirs and histories of modern South Africa for the last few months. Scenes with any dialogue at all are few and far between, and since we already know that South Africa did not collapse into anarchy after 1994 and that the Springboks did win the World Cup in 1995, the only real suspense in the movie is whether Madiba is going to be assassinated by a rugby fan (which we also know didn't happen.) The cinematography is fantastic, and also self-indulgent, given how little story there is. The editor clearly went off to lunch and never came back, as the film is close to three hours long. If you like this sort of thing, there are many scenes of nice male behinds in little white shorts that hide a large, grunting mass. ("Why are they doing that?" my companion whispered. "It's a scrum," I said, divesting myself of one of the two things I know about rugby. "Yes, but why are they doing that?" she persisted.)

Needless to say, if you are not already in love with rugby, and have been waiting for your whole life to have someone make a movie about it, you may feel as lukewarm about this movie as I do. On the other hand, the movie is so long and repetitive that if you know nothing about rugby, I can guarantee that by the end of Invictus, even though you will have learned almost nothing about South Africa, you will have learned the rules of rugby. In fact, the entire last hour is consumed by the World Cup rugby tournament. Political lesson? The way to Afrikaaners' hearts was through their cleats; black South Africans, in turn, were gracious in victory and could, metaphorically, "learn how to play a new game." By winning the World Cup (which they could not have done without the spiritual leadership of Nelson Mandela), the Springboks ensured that the new South Africa would be a harmonious one.

Really! Racial reconciliation was all about rugby? You don't say? But it's true. At the beginning of the movie, whites and blacks are barely speaking to each other, except at the urging of Mandela; by the final goal of the final match, blacks and whites are hugging each other, and black Africans have utterly forgiven decades of brutal colonial domination. The Afrikaaner police state that murdered, tortured and dismembered thousands of people, often quite randomly, has melted into an invisible past. Afrikaaners, on the other hand, have also extended one big hug to the people they kept a boot on for decades: they have given up racism, painted their faces in ANC colors, taken the maid to the World Cup final and been relieved of their fears that the country will descend into political and economic chaos that will send them fleeing to Canada and Australia.

Do I have to say that I found the movie hugely disappointing? And it isn't just because the interpretive gloss of Invictus isn't true (at the same time, I happen to be reading Antjie Krog's amazing account of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Country of My Skull in which the violence perpetrated on all sides, and the messy incompleteness of reconciliation, is described in moving detail.) It's because Eastwood, Freeman and Damon all have really good politics, and they have made a Hallmark Card of a movie that is designed to take South Africa off the map of the American mind as a place where American money should be targeting specific problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality that were engineered during the apartheid era with the full cooperation of the United States government and many powerful American corporations. Interestingly, in May 2008 the United States Supreme Court ruled that three law suits suing over 50 US corporations for their role in apartheid may be tried in US courts under the Alien Torts Act. And in December, 2009, slightly more than a week before the release of Invictus, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit against Ford, General Motors and IBM for their support of the apartheid regime.

From the beginning, the big debate about reconciliation in South Africa has been whether it can occur without compensation. It's not just that millions of people were deliberately immiserated under apartheid for over half a century, and resources redirected to lift the condition of Afrikaaners (who themselves believed that they had been unjustly held back and impoverished by the English.) It's that millions of people are still immiserated by the world apartheid made, and that Nelson Mandela could not unmake by becoming a rugby fan.

It is also true that the hatreds bred by apartheid and the violent resistance to apartheid could not breed a new world either. Mandela knew that, and the story about the Springboks is a small part of what he really did to effect a peaceful transition to black citizenship and an ANC government. But by telling a story about the power of sport to resolve political problems, Eastwood, Freeman and Damon have simply played into an old and tired American nationalistic myth about race that has nothing to do with South Africa, either in 1995 or now.


Tim Lacy said...

Moderately interesting story, really bad movie. I can't speak to the historical importance of sport contributing to a new democratic culture in South Africa, but I can judge (if imperfectly) on film aesthetics. The pacing and dialogue were just terrible---even though I concede the relative quality of sports movies. The last half hour was melodramatic torture. This might go down as the worst Matt Damon movie ever. I grade Morgan Freeman's performance as a B; he seemed a convincing Mandela. - TL

FrauTech said...

I think it's just an excuse to get Morgan Freeman to play Mandela. I mean, somebody in Hollywood's been just biting at the bit to get that happen. So script? Unnecessary. Make movie about Mandela staring Morgan Freeman. Done.

K said...

I've been thinking about your reaction to the movie as lacking in story in light of a question posed by an acquaintence on Facebook (it should be stated I don't particularly like this person - she said she was offended when I commented on how similar Israel and Russia are [considering that 20% of the Israeli population is former Soviet/Russian born and many more are descendents, this was not the brightest observation I ever made, mind you] because "Russia is a dirty country and Israel is clean." [she has never been to Russia]). She asked why men enjoyed watching old sports games. If you already know the outcome, what is the point of watching the game?

The best answer I could come up with is a scene from Sorkin's masterpiece, Sportsnight. In the first season, episode three, Jeremy is charged with producing his first highlights clip. Jeremy is an Aspie kind of sports fan - obsessed with the details, crunching the numbers, and unable to see big pictures. In his first highlights reel, he spends 9 minutes on a 0-0 tied baseball game. He is chastized by the main writers, but he defends his choices by pointing to the drama of the game. In near Shakespearian language he describes each pitch he picked, even those that were, in the words of the other character in the scene, routine pitches.

It is with that love of rugby that I watch Invictus. I know it is a myth, and I know the outcomes, and I know the realities, and I know so much more than the film wants me to know, but like watching an old rugby game, or reading a chess match in the paper, it is watching the drama unfold, how it unfolded, and going along for the ride. I think of films like "Hoosiers" - you already know what happens to Indiana, or can guess from early on if you happen to lack a parent who is a rabid Hoosier fan and/or don't remember the 1970s, but so? Is that really the point of the story? To get to the conclusion?

When I was coaching rugby, it was a really hard lesson to teach my students. It isn't about winning or losing the game, its about being on the pitch for 80 minutes playing your heart out. Rugby is a hard sport and takes years to master and hone. My college rugby team existed for five years before they won a single game (but boy, when we won, we were crying it was so sweet). Thats one entire generation of collegiate rugby players who never won, but who were at practice each week, who were on the pitch each week, who were traveling long distances to get their asses handed to them by a much better team. Why? Not for the conclusion, which for a very long time was known far in advance of the game, but to play the game. Americans are so hell bent on the conclusion, it seems to me, that it was difficult to get the students to focus on the actual game. I took my kids on a rambling walk through a park with multiple looped trails - every time a player asked where we were going or when we'd be done, we'd go on yet another loop. Eventually the other players figured it out and managed to get the one annoyed/confused player to stop asking so I'd take them back to the bus, but I like to think that they also learned about enjoying the process of getting to the end. ::sigh::

Of course what is funny is that the final game between South Africa and New Zealand is considered one of the most boring but significant rugby matches ever. It was an entirely kicking game, with about equal possession time and a lot of stoppage of play due to a high number of fouls. I think Eastwood managed to inject some drama into the game (though at the expense of continuity details only rugby players would pick up).

Tenured Radical said...


V. good cultural analysis of sport and it's capacity to tell a story, and I think you are right.

The problem here, from my point of view, is when the tory of sport is substituted for the far messier and more conflicted political story that hasn't had either a neat or a happy ending. And unlike some of the sports movies I have liked better, I did think that plot and character development were lacking.

Sarah said...

I have to say I agree with FrauTech. From my half-interested watching of the previews, I can't say I even noticed that the movie had anything to do with rugby at all. That said, while sport is certainly rife with racism and sexism even today, even in the U.S., I doubt that a single sport could do everything the movie seems to purport it does. Oppression is too complex and insidious to be solved with a scrum, I'm afraid.

K said...

Here's where I admit that Freeman's Mandela seemed mechanical at times, and if you don't already know a lot of the story and the details/hero-myths of the '95 Boks, it is possible the story would seem empty.
Also, I was surprised they left out the controversy over Chester (Williams, now on the coaching staff of the Boks). A lot of white SAers felt he was a token coloured player and he experienced a LOT of hostility, especially from his white teammates. He was the only non-white player on the team for a decade. Much more story there, and potential for drama, especially for those who aren't familiar. Why not Chester's story of overcoming hostility, then? Because Pienaar was a flaming racist, and you can't have Matt Damon playing a racist! That Chester was sidelined for the first match and only brought in because of someone else's injury is important - he went on the score four tries against Samoa (also left out of the film) to earn the starting position against France and New Zealand. Sports drama! Racial drama! And could be spun to complement Pienaar's (fake) story of overcoming his own Afrikaaner racism.

Jody Kuchar said...

I would have expected nothing less from this conventional Hollywood "retelling". It is a correct assumption that the film exists as a showcase for Mr. Freeman.

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I watched Invictus last summer and I was not expecting to see a very good movie and it impressed me, especially Matt Damon's performance which I think was outstanding!

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