‘Invictus’ rises above sports movie cliches

In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros.,Morgan Freeman portrays Nelson Mandela, left, and Matt Damon portrays Francois Pienaar in a scene from the film, &quotInvictus." (AP Photo/Warner Bros.,Keith Bernstein)
AP
In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros.,Morgan Freeman portrays Nelson Mandela, left, and Matt Damon portrays Francois Pienaar in a scene from the film, "Invictus." (AP Photo/Warner Bros.,Keith Bernstein)
Posted Dec. 17, 2009, at 6:53 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:56 a.m.

In theaters

INVICTUS, directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Anthony Peckham, 134 minutes, rated PG-13.

In Latin, the title for the new Clint Eastwood film, “Invictus,” means “invincible” or “unconquered,” which is a nice slice of symmetry since the word itself could describe Eastwood’s own career. Not many could have triumphed over those orangutan-infused “Any Which Way But Loose” movies he was saddled with in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but Eastwood did — and in the process, he went on to become one of our most important, daring and insightful directors.

“Invictus” also is the title of a poem William Ernest Henley wrote that came to mean a great deal to Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) during his nearly three decades in prison. Anthony Peckham based his script on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy,” and what each helps to showcase is just how restless a mind we have in Eastwood. And just how focused.

The film opens in South Africa not long after Mandela was released from prison. A few years pass, elections are held, and Mandela becomes that country’s first black president. To say the least, the time was tumultuous, but Mandela, who is masterfully played by Freeman in one of this year’s best performances, nevertheless remained steadfast in his belief about how to repair a country broken by the very apartheid that led to his own imprisonment.

His intent was the unification of all peoples — white and black — but how to do so when even his own staff questioned and resisted his ideas? For Mandela, the answer was to move forward, not to look backward, and to greet his opposition with the warmth and kindness he himself didn’t receive in that cellblock that was home for all those years.

No fool, Mandela knew kindness and broad smiles weren’t enough (are they ever in politics — or in life?), and so he looked for a hook in which all races could lose themselves and become an unknowing, cheering collective. Turns out, the key to this was the game of rugby. With the World Cup looming, Mandela hung his hopes on the Springboks, a team led by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) that was more accustomed to losing than to winning.

And yet Mandela wooed the team, which was mostly made up of brutish white men. He got close to Francois, who was raised by a father who openly ridiculed blacks. He had tea with Francois, and shared an inspirational talk. And as Francois left this encounter — and other encounters he would share with Mandela — he became empowered to inspire his team to potential greatness as the World Cup drew near.

On paper, all of this sounds cliched and forced, and while the movie is tainted with elements of each, the good news is that it’s overwhelmed by neither.

Since the film is based on a real event, many will know the outcome going into it, and so Eastwood, aware of this, places his focus on his characters (beyond Freeman and Damon, the movie features a terrific supporting cast), and also on the curious intricacies of rugby itself, which provides much of the action. For those who don’t recall the time in which the film takes place (mid-’90s), adding further interest is how Eastwood draws tension from the fact that whenever Mandela appeared at a public event, which was often, there was on ongoing threat that he could be assassinated at any moment. It’s that suspense, these performances and Eastwood’s smooth handling of all of it that makes “Invictus” such a pleasant surprise.

Grade: B+

On DVD and Blu-ray disc

HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, directed by David Yates, written by Steve Kloves, 153 minutes, rated PG.

The sixth film in the “Potter” franchise finds that time is on the movie’s side. The actors possess their best chemistry yet, slipping into this unraveling otherworld of growing evil with such seamless ease, it’s as if two years haven’t passed between movies and that the stakes aren’t as high as they are now. There are plenty of moments for comic asides in this movie — some corny, others bright — even though evil is busy wending its way through Hogwarts and surrounding areas at a blistering pace.

David Yates directs from Steve Kloves’ script, itself based on J.K. Rowling’s book, and what they created is a fine segue out of most of the awkwardness of adolescence and into the throes of young adulthood.

A good deal of the movie is unsettling and intense, more grounded and rich than any other film in the series. This time out, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) must deal with not only the fact that romance is entering into their lives, but also that Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) is giving himself over to a dark side that will threaten them all if he fully embraces it.

While Ron and Hermione brood along the sidelines — her affections for Ron are revealed in this movie, in ways that are unrequited since Ron is involved with Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) — it’s Harry who naturally has the most challenges to contend with. First up is dealing with his feelings for Ron’s sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright); he’s smitten with her.

Second is the real core of the story, which focuses on how Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) needs Harry’s help to undo Lord Voldemort. Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid and Maggie Smith’s Minerva McGonagall continue to be shortchanged, but Alan Rickman’s Severus Snape finds himself at the center of the movie, his character realizing a depth it never has enjoyed.

The same goes for Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange, a wild toss of Gothic frizz who bellows through the movie and gives it a wild edge in those few moments she’s allowed onscreen. Even when she, Coltrane and Smith aren’t onscreen, the movie satisfies with new revelations and twists, one so dire it might leave fans motionless after fate reveals its cruel hand and the credits start to roll.

Grade: B+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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