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Playing It Straight
Mark Bechtel
December 21, 2009
Invictus is a reminder of the power of sports—and the majesty of movies
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December 21, 2009

Playing It Straight

Invictus is a reminder of the power of sports—and the majesty of movies

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The serious sports movie isn't completely finished, but it has certainly, like a rag-armed pitcher on the 60-day DL, seen better days. For every artistic success like Seabiscuit or The Wrestler, the last decade has produced a slew of broad comedies involving Will Ferrell or a similar rube wreaking havoc in the world of basketball (Semi-Pro), soccer (Kicking & Screaming), auto racing (Talladega Nights), figure skating (Blades of Glory), boxing (Adam Carolla's The Hammer) or daredevilry (Andy Samberg's Hot Rod). Amusing as they might have been, none made anybody forget Chariots of Fire. Hell, none made anybody forget St. Elmo's Fire.

One reason broad comedy has become king is that sports movies inherently lend themselves to two themes: the ability of sports to unite people from different walks of life (see Rocky IV) and the ability of underdogs to inspire (see Rocky thru Rocky V, inclusive). Both threads have been mined so deeply that just about the only way to approach them now is to mercilessly mock them.

All of which makes the decidedly noncomedic Invictus such a challenge. Its requisite band of underdogs (a scrappy rugby team) is charged with a task so implausibly daunting (to single-handedly unite the most racially divided country on the planet) that upon its inevitable final-act completion viewers would be excused for throwing their soft-pretzel bites at the screen—except the events actually happened. Based on John Carlin's excellent 2008 book, Playing the Enemy, Invictus tells the story of the Springboks, South Africa's national rugby team, at the World Cup in 1995, the year after Nelson Mandela was elected president. During apartheid, rugby had been the white sport in South Africa and soccer the black sport (or, as one of Mandela's white security guards puts it, "Soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans; rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen"). Blacks viewed the Springboks' green jerseys as nothing more than a sign of oppression, and if they went to games at all, it was to root against the home team.

So when Mandela (played with staggering verisimilitude by Morgan Freeman) decides early in his first term that the way to bring blacks and whites together is to have them rally around the Springboks, his black advisers are incredulous. And the idea of forming an alliance with Mandela doesn't exactly sit well with the nearly all-white Springboks themselves, despite the best efforts of their captain, François Pienaar (Matt Damon). Undaunted, Mandela and Pienaar push forward with their plan as the Springboks march to the World Cup final against heavily favored New Zealand.

Director Clint Eastwood occasionally leans on the schmaltz, but he more than makes up for the occasional clichéd slo-mo sequence with dizzyingly effective action sequences and a beautiful scene in which the Springboks run a clinic for kids in a shantytown. But it's not those touches that make Invictus so rewarding, nor is it the excellent performances turned in by the film's leads. It's the story. Mandela told Carlin that the World Cup final in Johannesburg, which he attended in a green Springboks jersey adorned with Pienaar's number 6, was the most-tense moment of his life.

That is, of course, saying something. And it's worth hoping that somewhere out there, a filmmaker takes notice and back-burners that project with Zach Galifianakis in a gymnast's leotard and instead tries to find an event as gripping—and as genuine—to build a movie around. Because as Eastwood has shown, the serious sports movie might not be as frail as it has seemed lately.

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