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Overall Rating

Awesome: 8.7%
Worth A Look58.7%
Average: 28.26%
Pretty Bad: 2.17%
Total Crap: 2.17%

6 reviews, 10 user ratings

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by Erik Childress

"From Dogs To Underdogs"
4 stars

There's a corn and a wince factor for those who don't follow sports to suggest that a local team can provide momentary relief to the mundane or hectic lives of its followers. Whether it be high school, college or the pros, big cities and small cities alike have their loyalists following their favorite sports. Sometimes it can lead to intense rivalries, even amongst the dividing lines of individual cities as Chicago and New York can properly attest to their baseball representation. The story of Nelson Mandela is a broader one than what is told in Clint Eastwood's Invictus. Instead of a life story or the tale of his full term as President of South Africa, what we get is a larger metaphor about change that is as adaptable now to our current Commander-In-Chief as it is to many difficult transitions throughout history.

Briefly opening with the release of Mandela (Morgan Freeman) from prison in 1990, we see the black youths cheer and an elder white rugby coach refer to him as a "terrorist" and his people as "dogs." Cut to years later when Mandela is taking office, he hopes not to look at his friends or his rivals in terms of color. Several Afrikaaners leave the Presidential offices just as he hires a collection of special branch officers to serve in his protection detail alongside the black detail; the same officers who were once part of enforcing the reign of Apartheid. He wants to unite the country and one of his first acts is to visit the National Sports Council who have just voted to take away the name and the colors of the Springboks Rugby team; colors that symbolize an era of terror and repression.

After convincing them to keep intact what their tormentors cherish, Mandela calls upon the Springboks captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), with a lofty request. "How do we inspire?" is a question he repeatedly asks Francois who eventually makes the leap that his President has forged him to lead South Africa to the Rugby World Cup, a task for the lowly Springboks that most definitely would exceed all expectations. Mandela refers to this as a "human calculation" rather than a political one, but with the eyes of the world focused on an international broadcast, the opportunity to bring attention of South Africa's issues to the superpowers is too irresistible.

How many eyes from the United States are really paying attention to anything Rugby-related is a questionable approach considering the lament that soccer receives. Most underdog sports movies arrive with audiences having a general understanding of how the game is played. The first rule of Rugby turns out not to be some hokey allegorical bit about looking out for your teammate or crossing the goal line, but the more literal decree of only being able to pass the ball backwards or sideways. This runs a bit counter to Mandela's hope to forget the past and move forward since he would rather not pass the buck to those who came before him, but also to an understanding of simply what is transpiring during the actual games. For the Rugby ignorant, they will see points scored like field goals and touchdowns but come away knowing little about the scrum or the pirouette throw-ins. For all the work Damon clearly put in to buff up after going doughy in The Informant, it's a wonder why the film almost seems to consciously avoid his play on the field entirely. The bruises are on display but little of how they appeared.

Naturally the idea that there's a bigger picture at play than what's on the field. Invictus plays like a film that doesn't just want to be another tale of underdogs despite the inevitability of coming down to the big game against the big scary guys in the all-black uniforms. It constantly throws reminders at us, utilizing the word "change" more than the line outside of a soup kitchen and showing Mandela as a workaholic who's only respite comes watching the games live. "He's not a saint. He's a man with man's problems," we're told but come away knowing little about the man himself. The separation from his family is touched upon only to be forgotten in lieu of his family of 42 million. There's a nice scene where the Springboks visit Robben Island where Mandela spent 27 years as Pienaar tries to understand how a man who should be filled with anger can be so hungry for forgiveness and union. Yet the film never significantly establishes a moral or political opposition to the leader. Early scenes propose the danger faced by his security, which is laid to rest until a rather poorly managed and borderline tasteless bit of paranoia when an airline pilot scopes out the empty stadium to make his own reckless statement.

Housing, food, jobs, crime and currency take a back seat to the sport in Invictus; some might say paralleling whatever criticism Obama received for taking a weekend trip to secure the Olympics for Chicago. As long as you keep Eastwood's film in its own perspective, it works as just another well-told sports story. Grander aspirations in a script from Anthony "Don't Say A Word" Peckham that's not all that inspired only serve to prove that this is a film that is itself not coming close to exceeding its expectations. Chugging along under its montages and build-up to the final match, Invictus works. When it stops to give its keyword soundbites for the sixth time, our eyes glaze over, such as during one of the songs that actually pauses for a moment before hitting us with "I'm color blind" on the soundtrack, sounding like the lyrics from a Trey Parker verse.

A much better film that tackles the same basic themes as Invictus but wasn't afraid to maintain its focus on the game and its players was Miracle, which told the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team and their epic match with Russia during a time when the economic struggle in-between a political shift in power cried out for something to root for. By the end we understood that need but didn't walk away believing that everything was magically cured. Invictus' embracing at the finality of battling the "all-blacks" felt a little too much like the end of Naked Gun where the most hated oppositions kissed and made up. Maybe it's not the mass hysteria that Peter Venkman predicted with dogs and cats living together, but if we can't get Chicago to unite over a White Sox World Series can seven minutes in Rugby heaven really solve decades of segregation? Maybe all it takes is one man, one song or one poem to inspire. Invictus is good enough for the moment, but moreso as a reminder that it takes more than one of anything to get people in this world to change.

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originally posted: 12/11/09 16:00:00
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User Comments

1/18/11 millersxing Better as a human interest film than as pure sports nostalgia; the underdog story compels! 5 stars
10/25/10 mr.mike "Is no bad". Freeman and Damon excel. 4 stars
3/17/10 Bob Dog sadly underrated 5 stars
3/07/10 HamIAm It is about Mandela, and his wisdom in the face of an impossible situation. 5 stars
2/13/10 MP Bartley Eastwood has the knack of making any cliche seem honest and heartfelt. 4 stars
1/01/10 Phineas "St" Mandela is a Racist that's taken SA to the sewer. Blacks Can't Run anything Right. 1 stars
12/25/09 Suzz possibly the worst sports-themed film I've ever seen. Poorly directed and performed. 2 stars
12/18/09 Debbie Brooks Hey, Nit picky reviewers- Feel-good is OK! 5 stars
12/13/09 Flounder The script is pro forma (in a bad way) but it benefits from solid performances. 3 stars
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  11-Dec-2009 (PG-13)
  DVD: 18-May-2010


  DVD: 18-May-2010

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