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Review: "Invictus" (Clint Eastwood, USA)

Serge Daney once said that there were two types of filmmakers: those that believe that everything has already been filmed and they are only making variations on pre-existing ideas, and those that understand that even those variations represent something more than just images, that filmmaking isn't something limited to films; he added that morality began with the second category. Pedro Costa is the director who has taken that distinction closest to heart; Clint Eastwood, who has probably never heard of Serge Daney and doesn't need to, is the filmmaker whose work best proves it. Eastwood has taken the classical Hollywood model of filmmaking and its rules of framing and editing into the present; if Allan Dwan or John Ford were still alive and working today, their films would resemble Eastwood's. It's unfortunately more and more common (which is not to say necessary) to have to defend Eastwood, but a defense of Eastwood is a defense of directing and its history. There are those who'll avoid Invictus because of the awards-season plot, the conventions of the sports-movie genre, the casting of American movie stars as South Africans they don't remotely resemble or the godawful songs. But I'll defend every part of it, even the songs, which are just as terrible, and as key to the film, as the songs in Rancho Notorious.

Eastwood, like one of Jean-Pierre Melville or Johnnie To's men, or like Randolph Scott in the Budd Boetticher movies he dearly loves, is lead by his sense of the world, one to which he is devoted to the point where, like the heroes of his own recent movies, he finds himself at odds with all expectations and assumptions.  Every old man is a potential provocateur (conversely, inside every enfant terrible is a reactionary waiting to burst out), but Eastwood's is a quiet sort of radicalism. In Invictus, he makes, in the character of Nelson Mandela, a better case for the connection between John Ford and Bertolt Brecht than Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, because while Straub and Huillet had to put the Brecht into Ford, Eastwood makes the connection tangible by simply being Clint Eastwood, a man who understands the power of words and ideas and of having an audience clearly understand something. The beauty of Invictus is its clarity of purpose and the clarity of its every element: the dialogue is dialogue, the camera movements are camera movements, the editing is editing, the music is music, the songs are songs. Note that I write "clarity" and not "simplicity." There's nothing primitive or unnuanced about Eastwood; there's a lot to be found in being completely straightforward. It's epic theatre in the same sense that The Wings of Eagles and Sergeant Rutledge, or Flags of Our Fathers and Changeling, are epic theatre; these are films that exist less to involve their audiences in the plot than to allow those audiences to understand the plot fully, and all of implications. With Eastwood, you always know how characters feel, or what an event or action means, and you are lead to understand the purpose of these characters and their actions. It's possible to understand every moment of the film's final game even if you don't know shit about rugby.

Invictus is the story of two men who are captivated by one another's ideas and who don't really have very much to say to each other. Each one wonders what the other has gone through and will have to go through, stays up worrying all night and exchanges only handshakes at photo-ops and the occasional kind word. It's 1995, and the men are Nelson Mandela and Francois Pinnear, the captain of South Africa's rugby team, big star roles played as though they were supporting turns: Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Pinnear are calm men who speak openly, Mandela explaining his intentions, Pinnear vocalizing his insecurities. There is, of course, more than that. There are the presidential bodyguards whose procedures and worries Eastwood carefully depicts, almost as if he's making a documentary about their profession; assistants and advisors who have to keep the government moving when the leaders have other pressing matters; kids who want to play soccer and kids who want to play rugby; maids, servants, men who hang out at the local bar and watch sports together.

Invictus, like every good Eastwood film, is complexity by way of transparency. The South Africans of Anthony Peckham's script (which Eastwood has filmed, as usual, with complete fidelity) talk frankly, like the tram passengers at the end of Kuhle Wampe. But spoken words aren't everything, and with Eastwood there's always a clarity of form, a plainspoken frankness of framing and editing. When, in one of the film's first lines of dialogue, an Afrikaaner coach tells his team, on the day of Mandela's release from prison, that their country is now ruined before turning around to yell at them to resume practice, there is a sense of doom, a sinking feeling divorced from its racist subtext. A half-minute earlier is the opening image of the film: a panning motion combined with a zoom that puts the white athletes and their freshcut grass into the same shot as the black neighborhood kids playing in an empty lot across the street. It's possible to understand both sides completely: how they feel, and how they are oblivious. You get the sense that, if Eastwood were to make a movie about illness, he'd show the sick man, and how badly he needed a doctor, and then show us the doctor and all of his shortcomings (essentially, that's what he does in Changeling). His cinema is dialectical and his subject — here as in his last few films — is the construction of peace. Life isn't easy, and what exactly represents the greater good is often a question of social or ethnic background. For Eastwood, peace is something arrived at through work; it isn't the natural state of society (Ford and Brecht's shared subject, and now Costa's), certainly not a modern one. It isn't about the victory of good, but about the function for compromise. Mandela's words — spoken texts, really, as Freeman delivers them — don't represent idealism. Invictus isn't a movie about hopes. It's about a sort of everyday work, the process through which we surrender some part of ourselves to others.

Thanks for this excellent piece. My own attempt to do some justice to this film (and try to make sense of my feelings about those damn songs), at http://www.screenmachine.tv/2010/02/08/review-invictus/
Thanks, Conall. I really enjoyed your piece. But I am a sucker for mysterious minutiae — and for helicopters, which, like cars, airplanes / airports and trains, have their own strange place in cinema. The clatter of a helicopter, people having to talk loudly because of the noise of the rotor, plays a bigger part in movies (especially American ones) than it does in our everyday lives. Like the archetype of the “snooty waiter,” it’s a constant reminder that many of cinema’s reference points are shaped by the lives of the people making films, which are often more affluent than their viewers. The average person, in the presence of a helicopter, looks up, or is a little wowed; when you have to take them regularly, when they become just another part of your life, the first thing you think of is how goddamn loud the things are.

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