Clint Eastwood’s rugby movie “Invictus” opens worldwide on Friday. If you’re an ostrich, it’s about the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and how Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon brought South Africa together.
Author alert: The author of this review still has a picture of the 1995 World Cup Winning Team in his study, and continues to hold them in high regard. He gets emotional when talking about rugby in general, and the Springboks in particular.
There is a scene in “Invictus” that shows you how much time, energy and effort has been put into making it a good film. It’s a meeting of the ANC’s sports committee and there’s a youngish man, identified in the credits as “young firebrand”, who is leading the argument for removing the Springbok. It is Julius Malema, on screen, with a coherent argument, the real fire of feeling that he can bring and the sheer presence of the man. But it’s the way the actor speaks, the cadence and timbre, the diction that would be completely at home in any ANC political meeting now. The audience is spot on as well, with the picking up of words, the silences at certain points and its overall response. As someone who spends much of his working life watching these things on a daily basis, it was cinema true to life.
And that is pretty much “Invictus”, our history, wrought on screen. We forget, sometimes, how scared some of us were in the early days of the Mandela government. The stocks of canned goods were still pretty high in many white households, and while the elections had gone off okay, anxiety was the order of the day. It took Nelson Mandela with his wave and that jersey, to tell us it was all going to be alright, that actually we weren’t two nations in one set of borders, and that to him, whites were his people too. That feeling, that moment, has been captured absolutely.
Key to this is the performance of Morgan Freeman. Freeman’s voice is really quite something, sombre, well-paced, hugely distinctive. It’s rather easy to put make-up on someone and tell them to stand in a certain way, but disguising a voice takes something fairly extraordinary. Freeman shows why, among his other talents, he and James Earl Jones are in a class of their own when it comes to their vocal-artistry. When he speaks in the movie, to the UN, at his inauguration, even to Matt Damon, you actually forget it’s Freeman. That is surely a massive coup in its own right.
Freeman says (in an interview with Talk Radio 702 this morning) that it’s because he had access to Madiba over a period of years, and so got a good handle on his visual cues and verbal tics. He also claims he only got involved because Madiba said, in answer to a question, that if he was played on screen, he would like Freeman to do it. What Freeman has in spades, is dignity, that slightly reserved, slightly considered manner that is all but gone from today’s hustle and bustle. He brings across Madiba’s slightly old-worldliness in a way that underlines the humanity of the man.
Cranking open the mind of humanity is, of course, the main theme of the movie, and, while we don’t want to give the game away here, the device used, that runs through the movie, is brilliant. At first it all seems a little predictable, but as it gathers momentum, the quality of its handling makes you realise how much thought, and perhaps wisdom, went into just that very human part of the story.
The other very human part comes with the other main character. Somehow, they’ve made Matt Damon look Afrikaans. He has the slightly pinched features of Pienaar, the right tint of blonde that always marked him out amid the mud. His accent defies the critics’ best hopes of a target. He somehow brings a sense of innocence to Pienaar, who only realised halfway through the tournament that this wasn’t really about rugby at all.
The actual rugby comes out alright as well. It’s filmed very close up, with a rushing camera, which is always a good way to conceal the real action. It’s not like watching it on TV (which is a pity in one way), but it’s certainly well put-together. As it is, it’s quite difficult to work out what’s actually happening, you’d hate to watch real rugby matches like that every week. But hey, this is Hollywood, and it doesn’t really matter anyway.
Interviewing Madiba with the earring
Photo: Morgan Freeman at the premiere at the Empires Palace in Johannesburg on Tuesday. The earring was on the other ear. Reuters/Ziphozonke Lushaba
Interviewing a Hollywood star up close is a very different proposition from speaking to a politician. The surroundings are much better for a start. Let’s just say it was the top-class hotel, where everything works, the furnishings were delicious, and the soap in the bog was better than anything you can get at Woolworths. Cosatu House it ain’t. The people around, the PR staff look amazing. It’s glitz gloss and glamour, rather than the political pinstripe. Even the journos look sexier. What is completely familiar though is the sense of control. You wait for your chance, gossiping with entertainment journalists, and you’re then escorted into a small room. At this particular hotel, it’s a stunning study in what money and sophistication can buy you. Old books are on the walls, the lighting is just-so, and the actor waits in an easy chair in the middle. Morgan Freeman doesn’t stand up, but he’s over 70 and doesn’t have to. He’s in the middle of a full day of interviews, 10 minutes of the same questions coming out of different mouths.
You get 10 minutes, and that clock (and there really is one) starts the moment you walk in. There’s something else I didn’t know about entertainment journalism. For TV, they control the shot. It’s their camera, set against their background, and when you’re done, they pop out a tape and give it to you. While there are good logistical reasons for this (you imagine the chaos of 10 TV crews setting up one after the other), it really does show you that the PR machine is in charge here.
In a good broadcast interview, if you want to get under someone’s skin a little, to find out a bit more about them, it’s often a good idea to ask them something that makes them think a little, to get a glimpse of their brain. No chance with Freeman. He has everything ready to go, and in just 10 minutes (or 5:44 from pressing record to hitting stop), he knows he doesn’t have to dance with you very much. He is the consummate professional, but isn’t going to give anything of himself. Though it is odd to see “Madiba” wearing an ear-ring.
Freeman talks about having dinner with John Carlin, who wrote the book about the 1995 World Cup, “Playing the Enemy”. He loved the story and thought they should buy it. Reading between the lines, perhaps the wish to play Madiba was very powerful, and that must have been a part of all of this. He’s also well-chuffed that the script was written fairly easily, and loves the story because of the part it has played in South African history.
Freeman is also remarkably uncomplicated about race. His view is that we should simply stop talking about it, “really, in the 21st century, there are other things we need to focus on”. He’s quite happy to say that publicly, but for him, that seems to be the end of the story. A quick search of the usual sources (i.e. other media reports, and of course, Wikipedia) shows that he’s been very consistent on this, saying that race doesn’t matter, and we should all just move on. It’s a sentiment likely to be ignored here.
There is one question about the movie that still seems unanswered to me. Why “Invictus”? Sure it’s a Victorian poem that rolls off the tongue pretty easily. But it doesn’t play a pivotal role in the story. We have to ask, did they chuck it in because calling the movie “How Mandela and a rugby tournament saved a nation” wouldn’t wash. Was “there’s a sport called rugby and 15 years ago it really helped a small country far away about which we know very little through a difficult time” just too long for the American market? Perhaps.
The “Invictus” PR machine made sure that it made a splash with its opening in the US. It’s quite odd to see rugby featuring on MTV blogs, but that’s globalisation and box office talent like Freeman and Damon for you. There must be high hopes for award season as well. But it’s way too early to see how this very human drama will translate around the non-rugby playing world. The rugby playing world is different, but their people know how it ended, and perhaps will go for the inspiration. However it’s unlikely to be the year’s big event in Dunedin (although not much happens there, who knows?).
A word of caution about this movie. We at The Daily Maverick are proud of our cynicism, and see it as an integral part of our coping mechanism with the outside world. But for this movie, take someone you can hug. If the kids were too young to remember what happened, take them along for a piece of proud history. It’s a great family movie, even though we all know how it ended. You will probably end up a little emotional. I certainly did.
By Stephen Grootes
(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)
Main photo: Matt Damon poses at the Los Angeles premiere of Invictus in Beverly Hills, December 3, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser
And if you missed it last time, here's the Invictus trailer: