Eastwood does Oprah

A couple of nights ago, the Doctor and I watched a feature-length episode of Oprah directed by Clint Eastwood, titled Invictus. It was somewhat like going to a church service (at least as far as I can recall) where everyone is hopped-up on Ecstasy while trying to channel the spirit of the Dalai Lama – such was the overwhelming schmaltziness of this account of how Mandela saved South Africa with an oval ball. Parts of it were good – here in South Africa, much chattering occurs around the authenticity of accents when movies feature local characters, and both Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon did a good job in this regard. Also, some of the action scenes (rugby scrums and so forth) were appropriately animalistic (in general, though, the rugby scenes were rather devoid of tension or spectacle). But in what appears to be a concerted effort to win a couple of Oscars, Eastwood lays on the cheese to such an extent that at one point the Doctor remarked “this is more than cheesy – it’s an entire fondue!”.

See the (black) street urchin sitting on the hood of a police cruiser, listening to radio commentary of the World Cup with two (white) policemen, and eventually being hoisted onto their shoulders as they share in the triumph of “their” team. Witness the Pienaar family’s domestic help (black) sitting with the “madam” (white) at the final, the two of them sharing a laugh and looking like the closest of friends – never mind that the domestic helper has one line of dialogue in all the family scenes. Rugby transforms all of us, you know. Never mind that this all occurs before all sorts of race scandals (Geo Cronje, for example) emerge from Springbok rugby, or that rugby audiences are still typically white. Never mind that the racial politics of SA are far too complex to be accurately represented by this oversimplified sermon of forgiveness.

In summary, I think it fails in two main respects: one, its oversimplification serves to trivialise the apparent dignity of Mandela – it cashes in on the Madiba cliche by mainly presenting a cartoon version of the man, and a cartoon version of South Africa. I don’t know if the story of SA at that time could be told better – perhaps it can’t be (in film), but wrapping such complicated issues into a David-and-Goliath tale (Springboks vs. All Blacks, appropriately enough) of sporting triumph doesn’t seem to be the most likely way to get it right, unless all you’re after is a bit of chest-thumping patriotism. Two, I can’t see what’s in this movie for an international audience – the rugby isn’t exciting or dramatic enough (as filmed) to allow for success as a sports movie, and the characters are too thinly-drawn for it to end up as a satisfying personal drama. It simply takes a story everyone already knows is a big deal, and tells it in a way that makes the story seem somewhat more average.

It’s a lazy film – Eastwood coasts on the knowledge of existing emotional commitment on the part of viewers, and does nothing to show us why we should (or do) feel that way. Perhaps it’s also then an exploitative film. All I know for sure is that it’s a pretty boring film, and mostly a pointless one also.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.