Clint Eastwood tells the story of South Africa’s triumph in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the first World Cup after the end of apartheid. The title, “Invictus” comes from the inspiring poem that Nelson Mandela shared with the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar. The movie is respectful, dignified, and a little dull.
Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman, who shows us the new President’s grace and patience as well as his wisdom in treating everyone — even those who opposed the end of apartheid and believe his presidency is illegitimate — as countrymen, not enemies. He directs his black security detail to work with their white predecessors, and to remind them that it is important to smile at the people you are asking to move. Many people were skeptical that a black man who has spent 27 years in prison can lead a country where the white population had imposed legal segregation on the black citizens, asking “He can win an election. But can he run a country?”
And even his most loyal supporters wonder if he isn’t being unrealistic and trivial in hoping that a sports team can make a difference. “Unite [South Africa] for something more important than rugby,” one tells him. But the very first scene shows us Mandela, just after becoming President, driving down a road that has a wealthy, well-equipped white team playing on one side and a group of poor black boys in rags playing on the other. He knows that the rugby team can be a powerful symbol of unity and teamwork. He knows that all of the people of South Africa need to feel pride and a sense of shared purpose. He spent 27 years observing the Afrikaans guards at the prison and learning what was important to them. And so, he invites Pienaar (Matt Damon) to meet with him and he begins to memorize the names and faces of Pienaar’s team.
Eastwood has a good eye for striking images. While he does not handle the dynamism of the games well, he does make the rugby huddles look like something between a colorful Gordian knot and a many-legged creature. He has a gift for the small moments — a boy loitering near a police car so he can listen to the game on their radio, a housekeeper’s face when she is given a ticket to watch the game. He draws a connection between the two men — both are ferociously dedicated to making sure no one takes what is their away from them, not on their watch, and not today. But the impact is softened with dialog like “It’s not just a game!”
Mandela is such a transformative figure and Freeman such a distinguished actor that we are drawn in. It is impossible not to be stirred when he says, he does not want his followers to prove that they are what the whites feared; “We have to surprise them with compassion, restraint, and generosity.” But for a sports movie it is oddly lacking in momentum. Mandela tells Pienaar that he needs the team to win. We’re pretty sure that if they had not won, there would not be a movie about it (or, if there was, it would not be called the Latin word for “unconquered”). But that means we want to know why. We may get a sense of the way Mandela inspired Pienaar, but how did Pienaar inspire his team? Damon looks very buff and Pienaar seems like a nice guy, but this is rugby, one of the toughest sports on earth. How about showing us a little more ferocity? Some kind of strategy? Some individual personalities for the players? The New Zealand team they have to play in the big match does a little Maori war dance before the game that is more vivid and arresting than anything we see from the team we are supposed to be rooting for. Eastwood tells us this is all very important, but he never really shows us.
Harrison Ford has his best role in years as a testy scientist who listens to classic rock as he works all night in the lab and who may just have the key to a crucial medicine for a disease that kills children. Brendan Fraser plays John Crowley, the father of two children with a rare genetic disorder called Pompe disease that weakens muscles, enlarges organs, and had a life expectancy of less than eight years. Crowley quit his job as an executive in a pharmaceutical company to start a biotechnology firm to support the most promising research into a treatment for the disease.
That research was being done by Dr. Robert Stonehill (Ford), a twice-divorced, sardonic, and very stubborn professor. Crowley offers him the chance to get the resources he needs to test his theories. He raises the money for a start-up and handles the business side while Stonehill cranks up the Grateful Dead and insults people.
Ford, who bought the rights to the story when he read about it in the newspaper, produced the film and his long-time Hollywood experience and sure sense of story-telling shows. Screenwriter Robert Nelson Jacobs (“Chocolat,” “The Shipping News”) gently streamlined the story to shape the narrative. The Stonehill character is based on several different scientists who worked on the research and some of the most dramatic moments are shorthand summaries of real-life developments. But all of this is in aid of a powerful story that is pro-life in the broadest and most profound sense. Crowley has to ask himself what is best for his children — to be with them as much as possible while they are alive or to leave them for 20-hour days in the hopes of finding treatment that could keep them alive longer.
Ford inhabits the role the way his character inhabits his well-worn jeans and t-shirt. He knows this guy. He has no illusions but he likes him and he makes us like him, too. Fraser, too often underrated as an actor, manages to make Crowley inspiring without making him unbelievable, especially in the scenes with the children and with Keri Russell as his wife. Jacobs’ script skirts the usual tensions. The Crowleys have some agonizing moments, but they never question their commitment to their children and each other. The children are played by Meredith Droeger, who has a nice dry humor, and Diego Velazquez, who has beautifully expressive eyes. Their healthy brother John Jr. (Sam M. Hall) has a lovely moment when he shows how devoted he is to helping his siblings. And Courtney B. Vance is as always most welcome as the father of two other children with Pompe, making a strong impression in his brief time on screen.
Because the tension is between the Crowleys and the disease and between Crowley and Stonehill and Crowley and the bureaucrats and money people, the story can present the family as functional in the face of the greatest possible tensions and terrors. In the past, we’ve seen Ford fight the Empire and the Nazis and Fraser take on mummies, but in this story they take on something even more scary and the result is touching and inspiring.
Lena Horne, who graced our planet with her exquisite beauty, smoky sensuality, and stunning musicality, died yesterday at age 92.
Ms. Horne was the first African-American to sign a major studio contract, in the 1940’s. It specifically provided that she would never have to play a maid. She started singing at the Cotton Club when she was only sixteen years old. She had major roles in the earliest studio films featuring an all-black cast, “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather,” named for her signature song. She was a star of movies, television, night clubs, theater, and recordings, and was awarded both four Grammys, an Emmy, a Tony, and a Kennedy Center Honor.
Wikipedia notes that she
was never featured in a leading role because of her race and the fact that films featuring her had to be re-edited for showing in states where theaters could not show films with black performers. As a result, most of Horne’s film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline; a notable exception was the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, although one number was cut because it was considered too suggestive by the censors. “Ain’t it the Truth” was the song (and scene) cut before the release of the film Cabin in the Sky. It featured Horne singing “Ain’t it the Truth”, while taking a bubble bath (considered too “risquÃ©” by the film’s executives). This scene and song are featured in the film That’s Entertainment! III (1994) which also featured commentary from Horne on why the scene was deleted prior to the film’s release.
And during the Red Scare, she was black-listed and not allowed to appear in films. But she continued to work for civil rights, and refused to perform for segregated audiences. Her example of courage and integrity and her matchless voice will continue to inspire us.
I highly recommend “The Horse Boy,” an extraordinary documentary about a family that traveled to the other side of the world to help their autistic son and found all of their lives changed.
Rowan Isaacson was diagnosed with autism in 2004. The two-year-old his family thought they knew seemed to disappear. He lost the words he had learned.
He began to flap his arms and babble, to obsessively line up his toys, to retreat into himself for hours at a time, to avoid eye contact, to scream uncontrollably, inconsolably, as his nervous system erupted like a series of volcanoes, searing him with burning, with pain, terrifying him, traumatizing him, causing him to ‘fly away’ into an otherworld far from the reaches of his distraught, grieving parents.
But when he was put on horse, he was calm, peaceful, happy. He even started to talk. And so, in 2007, Rowan’s family took him to a place where he could be with horses and healers — Mongolia. Watch this with your families and then talk about what it tells us about love, hope, families, who we are, and what it means to be normal.