MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Invictus, Brothers, The Messenger

Invictus (Four Stars)
U.S.; Clint Eastwood, 2009

I am the master of my fate.
I am the captain of my soul.

Those are the stirring last words of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” the British poem from which black political prisoner and Apartheid foe Nelson Mandela took heart during his 27 years in South African prisons — before emerging triumphantly, his head bloody but unbowed (to borrow from Henley again), to win his freedom in 1990, and then his country’s presidency in 1994.Invictus is Latin for Unconquerable. And Henley’s lines, with their ringing rhythm and stoic idealism, speak of conquering over adversity, overcoming the worst circumstances, remaining true to oneself no matter what the darkness or travail. Coming from a poem that’s a Victorian classic, beloved, like Kipling’s “If,” by generations of British public school boys, it still seems remarkable that those words could also serve as a beacon and emblem for the man who came to symbolize tearing down white separatist rule in South Africa.

But Invictus the movie, is genuinely inspirational itself. Bringing to life an extraordinary true story that took place during Mandela’s first year as president — following the 1995 run for glory of the Springboks, South Africa’s long-mediocre, mostly white national rugby team, that, backed and encouraged by Mandela, made an improbable charge to the finals of the world cup rugby championship series — it’s a magnificent true-sports and true-politics drama.

It is also a strong, wise, and generous movie about national racial reconciliation, a story that cuts to the heart and gladdens the soul. Invictus was based by screenwriter Anthony Peckham (of the upcoming Sherlock Holmes) on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation” and directed by Clint Eastwood in yet another of his classy gallery of late career directorial achievements. Starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela — in a full-bodied, large-souled, and spiritually transcendent performance — it’s a memorable portrayal of how competitive sports can unite a once-divided nation, lift the spirits of divergent peoples and purge the poisons of racism from a long-warring culture.

Invictus, fitting its title, is a heartfelt tale of triumph and coming together. And it’s especially relevant here, now, in an America beset by a different political/cultural divide, and by more modern, maybe more disguised, racial poisons.

Eastwood’s movie has the even temperament, calm skill and understated generosity that marks the director at his best. He and Freeman — and Matt Damon, who portrays rugged, blocky Francois Pienaar, the South African Springboks rugby team player/manager whom Mandela enlists to unite the country’s hostile or fearful citizenry — don’t approach the material with any clichéd uplift or knee-jerk politically correct point-making. Aided by Peckham’s well-researched but sometimes properly imaginative script, they try to tell the story and paint the people — as much as possible in this kind of movie — as they were. They try to show, in John Ford’s words, “what really happened.”

Indeed, what is so extraordinary about the Springbok story, and the way Freeman plays Mandela, is how convincingly the prisoner-turned-president’s warm heart and unshakably generous spirit perseveres and conquers. Eastwood does this on a small stage which expands out. The characters we see most often here are not the average citizens of the country — who are captured mostly in non-dialogue, documentary scenes as they watch the games — but Mandela’s inner circle, his political staff, and especially the racially diverse team of bodyguards who protect him from possible assault or assassination attempts (Tony Kgoroge as Jason Tshabala, Patrick Mokofeng as Linga Moonsamy and Matt Stern as Hendrick Booyens).

This crew, run by Mandela’s longtime black aides, some of whom hate rugby and even question Mandela’s strategy, but also including white Afrikaner guards who served the previous regime, come to embody the tensions and conflicts of the old South Africa. They supply the most effective images of how, gradually, hatred and suspicion dissolve in the face of Mandela’s and Freeman’s great warming smile and welcoming, inclusive philosophy.

Freeman’s Mandela, like few political leaders in his tinderbox continent, is shown as a man who truly sees the other man’s point of view, even that of his one-time enemies, and is ultimately able to win them around. It’s in the evolution of the attitudes of the initially edgy and combative guards, and in Mandela’s growing friendship with the Springboks leader (Damon’s dedicated Francois), that we see how a nation heals old wounds, re-erects seemingly burned bridges. And we can see how white South Africa’s passion for rugby (or, as it’s called here, a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen, as opposed to soccer, the gentleman’s sport played by hooligans, which the black fans prefer) can cross over to the black audience who once ignored it. We watch sports unite them all in a fervor of national pride and that old high school standby: team spirit.
Morgan Freeman is one of the great contemporary movie actors, precisely because of the gifts he shows here: the ways he can so easily and un-showily slip into Mandela’s skin (and his accent) and so fully convey the man’s kind heart and understated but powerful charisma.

Freeman gets the iconic aspects of Mandela, but even more, he captures the man’s everyday humanity. He makes the political hero a lovable, breathing, giving, very reachable person — a man who could very well incarnate the moral of Invictus and win over his erstwhile persecutors. We love Freeman’s characters, here and elsewhere, because, as much as any actor living today, he conveys the sense of a man who listens, who hears, and who, because of that quiet, close attention to his fellow actors and people, cares and perseveres.

Eastwood’s directorial style here is, as always, lean, crisp, and deliberately low-key and unemphatic — backed up by his classic team of cinematographer Tom Stern, editor Joel Cox (and Gary Roach), and (a new addition, from Letters from Iwo Jima) production designer James J. Murakami. Clint directed Freeman to an Oscar in Million Dollar Baby, and he might well do the same here, partly because he surrounds Mandela with so much tumultuous life. Meanwhile, Eastwood tells the story, with its vast social spread and turbulent sports action, in the laconic, lucid, inwardly emotional voice of the Heminwayesque, or John Ford-ian, reporter, laying down fact after fact, image after image.

Rugby itself, with its frequent pileups and crab-like, hunched-over huddles and scrums, is not always the most visually comprehensible (or easy to follow) of sports. The only great rugby film I can recall is Lindsay Anderson’s and David Storey’s 1963 This Sporting Life — a movie more fixed on the psychological torments and brutality of Richard Harris’s miner-turned-star player Frank Machin than on the games.

But Eastwood gives us lots of rugby, plunges us into the action. He and his team strive, successfully, for a documentary feel in the scenes of the diverse sports fans (from black urchins to white cops) and of the rugby battles that unite them all — especially the final epochal clash between the Springboks and that year’s heavy favorite and super-team, the New Zealand Allblacks. The Allblacks are a mostly white team who use Maori war chants, who defeated some of their opponents by as much as 90 points, and who seem poised to annihilate the Springboks, even playing in the South Africans’ home-field Johannesburg stadium.

Recreated with the use of CGI and special visual effects, that last championship battle, whose storybook twists and turns are hard to believe even as you watch them, stays non-melodramatic and utterly absorbing. And the heart-stopping climax of the game is done with just enough rousing fervor and detached grace.

In a way, Invictus feels more like Freeman’s personal project than Clint’s: the culmination of the actor’s long quest to bring Mandela’s image to the screen in some kind of bio. Indeed, the player does triumph in the role. He is the acting master of his fate, the captain of his soul.

But still, Eastwood’s direction seems, at every point — right from the first shot juxtaposing the young white rugby players, the black soccer kids across the road, and the fence between them — highly personal, totally involved. He is as good as he can be: a master himself of the filmmaker’s quiet cool craft, in unselfish ascendance.

Clint says he won’t act again, and I guess he proves in Invictus, again, that he doesn’t need to. But I hope he relents. Gran Torino proved he’s still a star. And perhaps what Eastwood needs to do to win that elusive Best Actor Oscar is try something he’s been reluctant to do for years: to give himself up to another director, as almost happened with Steven Spielberg in Bridges of Madison County, and let him (or her) call the shots while the star makes his day.

To win the one that keeps getting away, Eastwood also may need to do an Oscar-worthy role that’s a departure, maybe a part as witty, quiet, cerebral, understated and casually eloquent as he is in life. Or maybe something truly iconic like, say, an old sheriff in a movie from Dorothy Johnson’s Lost Sister, which could be his last great Western. (Scripted by another Cormac McCarthy?)

I doesn’t matter. Invictus is fine. We should be happy enough to get this man C. E. behind the camera again, somebody cool who can lay the tracks for Freeman’s truly wonderful Nelson Mandela, in a stirring, inspirational-to-a-fare-thee-well sports saga. We should be happy to get Freeman’s Mandela and Invictus, a man and a movie bloody but unbowed.


Brothers (Three Stars)
U.S.; Jim Sheridan, 2009

Not as good as it could have been, and probably not as good as the film that inspired it — Brodre by the great Swedish director-screenwriter team Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen — this war-at-home saga of the good brother soldier, Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), his bad-brother ex-jailbird Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the wife, Grace, caught between them (Natalie Portman), has its moments of power and grief.

It’s not one of Sheridan’s best. (He may never top My Left Foot.) But it’s decent, admirable work. And it has a marvelous cast, including Mare Winningham and Carey Mulligan of An Education, who pops up as another war-wife. If Sam Shepard, as the brothers’ gruff but vulnerable dad, is one or two big scenes away from a great performance.

. ___________________________________________

The Messenger (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Oren Moverman, 2009

I caught up with this one late, but it’s every bit the sleeper it’s touted to be. Director-co-writer Oren Moverman is a real discovery, good at scripting (with Allesandro Camon), good at visuals and especially good with actors.

The cast is tremendous. Three superb performances here, topped by Ben Foster as Will Montgomery, a somber Iraq hero and “Dear John” victim turned bad news-carrier for surviving families of dead soldiers. Just as strong: Woody Harrelson (at his peak) as cynical Capt. Tony Stone, Will’s scapegrace mentor. Samantha Morton as plain but radiant war widow Olivia. Plus Steve Buscemi with two terrific scenes as a maniacally bereaved father.

Recently, I lamented the loss of the kind of writing that went into the much-touted, less-seen Golden Age of TV Drama. (Chayefsky, Serling, Miller, Rose, Costigan.) The Messenger has exactly the kind of script and sensibility I was mourning. A taut, compassionate, eloquently spare look at the home-front wreckage of war, it should absolutely not be missed by any end-of-year award-sifters.

– Michael Wilmington
December 10, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon