Playing It Straight

December 21, 2009

Invictus is a reminder of the power of sports—and the majesty of movies

The serious sports movie isn't completely finished, but it has certainly, like a rag-armed pitcher on the 60-day DL, seen better days. For every artistic success like Seabiscuit or The Wrestler, the last decade has produced a slew of broad comedies involving Will Ferrell or a similar rube wreaking havoc in the world of basketball (Semi-Pro), soccer (Kicking & Screaming), auto racing (Talladega Nights), figure skating (Blades of Glory), boxing (Adam Carolla's The Hammer) or daredevilry (Andy Samberg's Hot Rod). Amusing as they might have been, none made anybody forget Chariots of Fire. Hell, none made anybody forget St. Elmo's Fire.

One reason broad comedy has become king is that sports movies inherently lend themselves to two themes: the ability of sports to unite people from different walks of life (see Rocky IV) and the ability of underdogs to inspire (see Rocky thru Rocky V, inclusive). Both threads have been mined so deeply that just about the only way to approach them now is to mercilessly mock them.

All of which makes the decidedly noncomedic Invictus such a challenge. Its requisite band of underdogs (a scrappy rugby team) is charged with a task so implausibly daunting (to single-handedly unite the most racially divided country on the planet) that upon its inevitable final-act completion viewers would be excused for throwing their soft-pretzel bites at the screen—except the events actually happened. Based on John Carlin's excellent 2008 book, Playing the Enemy, Invictus tells the story of the Springboks, South Africa's national rugby team, at the World Cup in 1995, the year after Nelson Mandela was elected president. During apartheid, rugby had been the white sport in South Africa and soccer the black sport (or, as one of Mandela's white security guards puts it, "Soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans; rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen"). Blacks viewed the Springboks' green jerseys as nothing more than a sign of oppression, and if they went to games at all, it was to root against the home team.

So when Mandela (played with staggering verisimilitude by Morgan Freeman) decides early in his first term that the way to bring blacks and whites together is to have them rally around the Springboks, his black advisers are incredulous. And the idea of forming an alliance with Mandela doesn't exactly sit well with the nearly all-white Springboks themselves, despite the best efforts of their captain, François Pienaar (Matt Damon). Undaunted, Mandela and Pienaar push forward with their plan as the Springboks march to the World Cup final against heavily favored New Zealand.

Director Clint Eastwood occasionally leans on the schmaltz, but he more than makes up for the occasional clichéd slo-mo sequence with dizzyingly effective action sequences and a beautiful scene in which the Springboks run a clinic for kids in a shantytown. But it's not those touches that make Invictus so rewarding, nor is it the excellent performances turned in by the film's leads. It's the story. Mandela told Carlin that the World Cup final in Johannesburg, which he attended in a green Springboks jersey adorned with Pienaar's number 6, was the most-tense moment of his life.

That is, of course, saying something. And it's worth hoping that somewhere out there, a filmmaker takes notice and back-burners that project with Zach Galifianakis in a gymnast's leotard and instead tries to find an event as gripping—and as genuine—to build a movie around. Because as Eastwood has shown, the serious sports movie might not be as frail as it has seemed lately.

The Most...

WELL-TIMED OFFENSIVE OUTPOURING

February 2, 2009, was a big day for Spike Lee. Nearly a year after he trained 30 cameras on Kobe Bryant for an exhaustive day-in-the-life documentary, the Lakers' guard was scheduled to finally record commentary to accompany the footage. But first Bryant had to face the Knicks—and he went for 61 points, leaving the usually low-key star in a giddy mood that makes Kobe Doin' Work surprisingly engaging and informative.

PERSUASIVE GRASSROOTS FLICK

The makers of Sonicsgate, which examines how Seattle lost its NBA team, felt so strongly about its message (the team's fans were screwed by a whole lot of people) that they gave the movie away on their website. Don't be fooled by the price tag: This pitch-perfect documentary shows the collateral damage when a team leaves town.

WATCHABLE THERAPY SESSION

James Toback's documentary, Tyson, is mostly just Mike Tyson baring his soul to the camera, but it doesn't suffer for its lack of objectivity. The disgraced heavyweight asserts that being beaten up by bullies as a kid gave birth to the rage that served him so well in the ring but tripped him up so frequently out of it. Maybe that's not why Tyson became who he did, but he thinks it is, and that just might be more interesting.

BIZARRE REASON TO BUY A DVD OF A MEDIOCRE FILM

Br√ºno wasn't the smashing success that Sacha Baron Cohen's previous film, Borat, was. But Cohen hasn't totally lost his touch, as evidenced by a ridiculous meeting—seen only on the DVD—between his titular effeminate Austrian and baseball's hit king, Pete Rose. The substance of the talk is less notable than the chairs upon which it was conducted: a couple of kneeling Latino laborers.

MAMMOTH PACKAGE

If nothing else, bringing home a copy of The Official Major League Baseball World Series Film Collection guarantees a good workout. The 20-DVD set weighs only slightly less than a small child. If a Series moment isn't in these 50 hours of coverage, it probably isn't worth seeing.

CONSISTENT STARMAKER

A year after his script for The Wrestler helped revive the career of Mickey Rourke, Robert Siegel once again made the most of a peculiar casting decision, directing funny man Patton Oswalt in the very dark Big Fan. As a man whose life revolves around the Giants, Oswalt turns in a stellar performance that establishes him as a rival to Paul Giamatti if directors are looking for someone to play a schlub whose life is spinning out of control.

The Brow Beat

HIGH

CINEMA SNOBS and ski buffs rejoice! Downhill Racer, the 1969 Robert Redford fave, received the Criterion Collection DVD treatment, with extras that include a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Michael Ritchie.

LOW

FOR WHIP IT, her directorial debut, Drew Barrymore cast herself as a roller derby queen who takes Ellen Page under her heavily padded wing. How can a movie whose main character is named Babe Ruthless not be a winner?

PHOTOKEITH BERNSTEIN/WARNER BROS.TRUE TO LIFE As Mandela and Pienaar, Freeman and Damon nail the details of the Springboks' historic run. PHOTOFOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES/PHOTOFEST PHOTOEVERETT COLLECTION PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOCOURTESY OF FIRST INDEPENDENT PICTURES PHOTOCOURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)