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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Invictus Blu-ray Review

I’ve always had a weak spot for rousing sports movies where the underdogs battle the odds and win, so I was looking forward to Invictus for that reason plus the great cast and the direction of Clint Eastwood, whom I’ve admired as an actor and as a director. Unlike say, Rocky, Invictus is about more than the sport and it’s more akin to Hoosiers where the results of a championship have a broader effect on a community or in this case a country. The life of Nelsen Mandela (or Madiba as he was affectionately called), just begged for a bigscreen biopic due to the hardships he endured to eventually bring about much needed change for South Africa. I

n fact, Morgan Freeman and his partner Lori McCreary had been developing their own movie about Mandela (Madiba) for years based on his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” before joining this production. Talking with Mandela, Freeman said, “”Madiba, we’ve been working a long time on this other project, but we’ve just read something that we think might get to the core of who you are…” Before he had finished, Mandela said, “Ah, the World Cup.” For Lori McCreary, that was “when I knew we were heading in the right direction.”

Mandela was the leader of the anti-apartheid Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) when the South African courts convicted him of sabotage along with other alleged charges. Mandela spent 27 years in prison, with most of them spent on Robben Island in a cell that was so small that you could stretch your arms and touch both sides of the cell. After finally being released in February 11, 1990, one would think that he would want revenge for his unjust imprisonment like the Count of Monte Cristo, but revenge was the last thing he desired. Instead of dreaming of how he could get even during that long 27 year sentence, he instead made plans on how to make things better. As he says in the film, “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”

Mandela desired peace and reconciliation and he knew that the only way to achieve that was by providing an example for the rest of South Africa. He began with forgiving those that imprisoned him. His efforts led to the first multi-racial elections where he was elected the nation’s first black President. That was the first step towards healing the rift between blacks and whites but Mandela knew that more steps were needed. While watching a rugby game, Mandela observed that,”All the whites cheer for South Africa. All the black cheer for England.” With the realization that the majority of his nation rooted for their opponent, instead of the national team Springboks (which Mandela did himself when he was younger), Mandela decided that the Springboks would be the springboard for the unification of South Africa. This movie is based on that effort.


Film (4 out of 5 stars)

Morgan Freeman stars as Nelson Mandela and delivers his customary excellent performance. Freeman is always good even in bad movies, but here he completely disappears into the character, becoming Nelson Mandela. In fact, Nelson Mandela himself said at one point that only Morgan Freeman could ever portray him correctly. Freeman does just that here by portraying the man with all of his principles and the charm he seems to effortlessly have. Freeman prepared for his role as Mandela by watching some tapes of him to perfect his accent and rhythm of speaking as well as spending time with him at Mandela’s home. However, the most difficult part for Freeman to duplicate was Mandela’s charisma: “I wanted to avoid acting like him; I needed to BE him, and that was the biggest challenge. When you meet Mandela, you know you are in the presence of greatness, but it is something that just emanates from him. He moves people for the better; that is his calling in life. Some call it the Madiba magic. I’m not sure that magic can be explained.”


The film also stars Matt Damon as Fran├žois Pienaar the captain of the Springboks rugby team who Mandela tasked with winning the Rugby World Cup. Damon was a little concerned about playing Pienaar because of the size differences between them but was told by Eastwood, “Hell, you worry about everything else. Let me worry about that.” Upon meeting the real Fran├žois Pienaar, Damon told him “I look much bigger on camera.” Like Mandela and Freeman, Pienaar and Damon spent time together discussing rugby, his philosophy on being a captain, and training methods. Damon took all of that and combined it with an authentic South African accent and became Pienaar.

The film shot at actual locations to preserve historical verisimilitude such as the exterior of Nelson Mandela’s house, the offices of the Union Buildings, the seat of government in the capital city of Pretoria, and Ellis Park Stadium. The movie provides an interesting contrast between the opinions and attitudes between the black and white communities in South Africa. Both sides didn’t trust the other and the nation was on the brink of a civil war. Mandela was certain that if he could get the nation to rally behind the national rugby team the Springboks, that it would go a long way to the peaceful unification of his nation. By throwing his political capital and charisma behind the Springboks, Mandela took a huge gamble that even his own advisors begged him not to do. In fact, as the film shows us, Mandela paid a heavy personal cost to achieve his goals as he essentially lost his family because of his prison sentence and later non-stop efforts.

Since the Springboks were themselves considered a symbol of apartheid, Mandela met with Pienaar and asked him to lead his team to the World Cup so it would inspire the nation and bring them together. By inspiring Pienaar himself, Mandela started a chain reaction where a newly invested Pienaar did his best to inspire his team and improve their game and reputation with the public. The following events are inspiring as we see small personal moments add up to a larger change in society. The film shows us that one man can make a difference and how his efforts can start a ripple effect that can change a nation.


Clint Eastwood has delivered another no nonsense old-fashioned film that keeps its narrative clean and without the heavy sentimentality that would have occurred in less sure hands. He is famous for his quick filming style and straight forward techniques and he employs them well here. There is no gimmicky look at me shots or anything that diverts attention away from the movie to the director. A lot of people complain that Eastwood doesn’t have a recognizable directorial style but that’s the point. Instead of putting himself before the movies he directs, he focuses on the story he is trying to tell. Whether or not that is in a western, a romance, a drama, or a biopic like this, Eastwood stays true to the source. He has proven to be a master of all genres much like his acting career and an inspiration to other directors such as Steven Spielberg who is impressed that he is still directing at the age of 80.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

The good news is that Warner Bros. has maintained its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 which is nice. The film has a slightly washed out grainy look that was intentionally done as part of the realistic style of the movie and I’m guessing also to match better the large amount of real newsreel footage. Most of the movie was filmed in harsh daylight which adds an extra sheen to it. Director of Photography Tom Stern and Director Clint Eastwood have obviously gone for a stylized look but the colors still pop out especially the rugby uniforms. That style doesn’t lend itself to be used as a reference disc but I have no complaints.


Audio (4 out of 5 stars)

The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround field is well used especially during the rugby matches where the rear speakers really kicked in. The dialogue is crystal clear and front heavy and this was a very satisfying sound palette. The audio was far more satisfying than the video. You will clearly hear every blow, kick, and grunt during the games. They did a stellar job on the audio and they should be commended for it.


Special Features (4 out of 5 stars)

The movie comes with high definition video supplements, a BonusView picture-in-picture feature with Clint Eastwood, BD-Live and bonus DVD and digital copy.

The supplements provided on this release are:

Vision, Courage, and Honor — Join Clint Eastwood and those that lived through the events in this movie in the Picture in Picture viewing which gives the inside story of the making of the film and the real life history, this Blu-ray exclusive provides a rare glimpse into the process of Clint Eastwood.

Mandela Meets Morgan - Nelson Mandela and Morgan Freeman meet to prepare for the film.

Matt Damon Plays Rugby – Watch Matt Damon learn the game of rugby.

The Eastwood Factor – An excerpt from the upcoming film about Eastwood’s life and career produced by esteemed film critic and documentarian Richard Schickel.

Invictus Music Trailer

BD-Live

DVD

Digital Copy — Standard definition copy of the movie for transfer to a Mac/PC or iTunes/Windows Media compatible device.


Final Thoughts

I really enjoyed the film and would recommend it easily. For those wondering what exactly Invictus means, it’s Latin for “Unconquered.” It came from a poem by William Ernest Henley that Mandela used to keep going. The final two lines were especially important to Mandela which was,” I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” That is also a good encapsulation of the movie. While watching the special features I also enjoyed the excerpt from the upcoming Schickel documentary on Eastwood as well as preview to the Clint Eastwood career retrospective box set called 35 films, 35 years at Warner Bros. which covers the bulk of his career as both an actor and as a director. It’s unfortunate that it is only a DVD release. In any case, if you enjoy uplifting biopics and rousing sports movies, then this is the movie for you. Eastwood has proven himself to be a master craftsman again.


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