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October 5th, 2009:
The film tells the inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela joined forces with the captain of South Africa's rugby team to help unite their country. Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa's underdog rugby team as they make an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.What to Expect:
If you had to come up with the name of someone in Hollywood who is universally respected and admired, you could do a lot worse than Clint Eastwood. With a legendary acting career spanning nearly half a century and an ever-expanding directing career littered with awards and international acclaim, not to mention box office success, it sometimes seems as if Eastwood can do no wrong. Actors clamor to work with him because of his actor-friendly directing style and knack for extracting strong performances, and studios love him because he brings his films in under budget and ahead of schedule. No muss, no fuss, no drama, and quality product that audiences like to go and see. That's Eastwood.@@**@His most recent film, "Gran Torino," in which he also starred, was the biggest box-office success of his directing career, and at 79 years old the man shows no signs of slowing down. Minutes after completing press for "Gran Torino," he tackled the formidable task of directing "Invictus," a film about rugby and Nelson Mandela, shot on location in South Africa. The film has the kind of pedigree that has the Academy pre-printing its title on the ballots.
Based on the book "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation" by John Carlin, the film looks at a specific event from early in Mandela's first term as president of South Africa. The Springboks, the South African national team, had long been banned from World Cup competition because of its association with apartheid, but once the system was abolished they were invited to host the 1995 World's Cup, in which they defeated New Zealand in overtime. Mandela encouraged his countrymen to rally behind the team, which had long been considered a white man's sport by the African population of South Africa, and its against-the-odds road to victory provided a common cause for the still-divided populations of the country. Mandela still considers the game one of the highlights of his presidency.
When you think of who on this planet could possibly play Nelson Mandela, there can really only be one answer: Morgan Freeman. If Sidney Poitier were still acting he might be a contender, but even then I think I have to go with Team Freeman. Poitier's too tall. Freeman also has a long-standing relationship with Eastwood. He's almost the man's good luck charm, having starred in both of the films of Eastwood's that won Best Picture: "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby." His choice for the role couldn't be more self-evident, especially considering that Freeman knows Mandela personally and has spoken of the role as one of the most desired and challenging of his career. The wrinkle in all this is that at the time of filming, early 2009, Freeman was still recovering from his near-fatal car crash of August of 2008 and required therapy for his hands. Given these considerations, not to mention his age (and Eastwood's; they are 71 and 79 respectively), the production engaged a doctor to stay on set and monitor star and director daily. Freeman hardly seems about to keel over and Lord knows Eastwood always looks like the picture of robust health and energy, but I guess it's better safe than sorry.
The other key role in the film, Springboks team captain Francois Pienaar, went to Matt Damon. This casting is a little less obvious than Freeman's. For one thing, Pienaar was 28 at the time of the championship, and Damon is ten years older... not to mention significantly shorter than Pienaar. I've never been a fan of casting for physical resemblance in films featuring historical figures, though. I'd rather have a good, evocative performance than someone who's a spitting image of the person they're playing. Frank Langella in "Frost/Nixon" is an excellent example. He looks nothing like Nixon and yet somehow was Nixon, clear through to his bones.
Anyway. Damon had to quickly get himself back into shape after getting doughy for his role in Soderbergh's "The Informant!" which he did with the help of his brother Kyle, which had to have been no easy task given how in-shape the character he was playing must have been. Seems like he did a pretty good job, though... while they were in country, Damon and his brother participated in the grueling 68-mile Cape Argus bike trek. That wasn't his only non-film-related activity during his stay in South Africa. Damon also spent time touring villages affected by the unrest in Zimbabwe on behalf of the Not On Our Watch foundation, which he co-founded with Don Cheadle and several of their "Ocean's Eleven" co-stars. Damon's most obvious physical modification for the part was some shockingly blond hair which has been met with dismay in some quarters, but hey, that's what you do for your art, right?
The title of the film has undergone some changes. The working title was "The Human Factor," which was incorrectly reported as the title of Carlin's book in some circles. I don't know where they came up with that but it's about as generic a title as I can imagine. "Invictus" isn't much better in that it really doesn't convey anything about the film, although there is a reason for it. It's from a poem that Mandela often quotes, the word itself is Latin for "invincible," which just makes me think about that Mark Wahlberg movie about the Philadelphia Eagles, which is probably not the associaton they're going for. Generally biopics or films about historical subjects choose titles that inform the public who or what they're about, by either just using the name (like "Gandhi") or a phrase strongly associated with that person (like "Walk the Line"). They're going to be relying entirely on marketing to inform the moviegoing public that this is Clint Eastwood's film about Mandela, and that's not always a great strategy. I can understand their hesitance to name the film after Mandela himself, since this isn't a biopic about him, precisely, but about one specific event with which he was intimately involved and strongly associated.
Another troublesome aspect of this film's production are the accents. South Africa's population uses a dizzying array of regional accents, some of which are creoles of several different accents, and actors of other nationalities are notorious for being unable to mimic them. Damon's character uses the Dutch-influenced Afrikaans accent, whereas Mandela's accent is more unique. Freeman studied video and audio of Mandela to master the dialect. Casting agents reportedly wanted to find some Esteemed British Character Actor to portray Pienaar's father, but they couldn't find anyone who they trusted to handle the accent, so the part went to a local actor without name recognition but with lingual accuracy.
There are no other Hollywood names of note in the cast with the exception of Eastwood's son, Scott, who's assumed to be taking the role of one of the other members of the Springbok's squad. It's very likely that the production made extensive use of local talent, which would be only logical when the entire film is shot in Cape Town. Damon's experience with Eastwood seems to have been positive; he's turning right around and starring in the director's upcoming supernatural thriller "Hereafter," to begin shooting soon.
Eastwood is unapologetic about refusing to make films aimed at the young male core audience that studios pant after so lustily. He enjoys making movies to get the boomers to come out and see them, and if young people like them too, he'll take it but he's not losing any sleep over not winning the 18-25 demographic. He's gotten several projects greenlit that studios didn't want because of their lack of core appeal, such as "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby," and that seems to have worked out alright in the end. Clearly the studio has faith in this film, as right now it's scheduled to open opposite another Oscar powerhouse, Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones." A holiday season opening for a film like this is a virtual guarantee that the suits consider it good Oscar material, and given that the Academy has expanded the list of nominees to ten this year, it's hard to imagine this film not being nominated unless it sucks beyond the telling of it, which seems unlikely given the talent involved.
One question on the minds of some is about the film's historical accuracy. The screenwriters met with author John Carlin for a week in his London home to discuss how best to translate his book into a workable screenplay, but there's no word on if there have been any changes to the real timeline or the real events for the sake of cinematic artistry. It seems inevitable that there be some truncation or amalgamation of characters and/or storylines. Real history is just too messy to film without massaging it a little. The level of dedication to rugby and this subject in particular is very high in South Africa, and the filmgoers there are sure to be the most critical, but it's hard to imagine American audiences quibbling over some fudging of the facts.
It's likely that the film will do decent business and probably recoup its expenses. I'm sure the studio is counting on the Oscar Bump once nominations are announced. Star power and the subject matter will likely draw in quite a few older moviegoers, and the sports element may bring in more young males than Eastwood predicts.In Conclusion:
Oscar Bait should be Clint Eastwood's new nickname, as every film he makes ends up being just that. After the (some say undeserved) snub of "Gran Torino" by the little gold man Eastwood comes back swinging with this hard-to-deny film that combines big acting chops with big subject matter and a surefire inspirational ending. It kind of reads like How To Make a Best Picture 101, a book that Eastwood would be qualified to write. Decent money, not a blockbuster, nominations may give it legs.Similar Titles: Million Dollar Baby
, Gran Torino