Invictus (Eastwood, 2009)

Desperate times often call for desperate measures. But in Clint Eastwood’s stale and disappointing biopic Invictus, newly elected and embattled South African  president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) seems downright cavalier about his torn country on the precipice of racial revolt. It’s as if Mandela knows he’s  destined for a happy ending, that the forgone conclusion is just around the corner.

In a nicely stoic turn, Freeman paints Mandela as practically omniscient, achieving sweeping and rather easy unity by rallying his dispirited countrymen  around a common source of inspiration. Through Eastwood’s uncharacteristically rosy lens, decades of Apartheid trauma and violence get muted in favor of the  endless array of cheers, high fives, and slaps on the back for the country’s rejuvenated national Rugby team, the Spingbok’s.

Eastwood pushes his blunt-force symbolism from the first frame as Mandela’s motorcade races down a country road dissecting two soccer fields, one occupied by black children playing in tattered clothes and the other inhabited by a white team. The children cheer for the just-released Mandela while the grizzled old white Coach spells the turning of the tide – “This is the day our country went to the dogs.” Beyond just cliche, the sequence is incredibly lazy from a film-making standpoint, marking Mandela as a messiah that the everyday folks either revere or revile, with nothing in between.

These symbolic patterns continue throughout Invictus, paralleling Mandela’s quest to alleviate national concerns (about black retribution and white fear) by sparking interest in the World Cup of Rugby and his relationship with the Springbok’s captain, an honorable and loyal sportsmen named Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). The two actors only share a few dynamic scenes, so their communication of message, spread by two men of the same ideological ilk, becomes the driving force of Invictus. Freeman delves deep into Mandela’s passion, bringing a grace to the man’s every movement and glance. But each actor looks stuck by the sugary world around them, stricken by the film’s limiting, plodding screenplay. Eastwood relies almost entirely on cross-cutting between the two men, as Mandela skirts around the country preaching his plan while Pienaar miraculously gets his mates into fighting shape.

Beyond the lead characters, Invictus attempts to build a national consensus, highlighting minor players of different races like Mandela’s bodyguards or Francois’ maid. Yet Eastwood’s direction and Tom Stern’s glossy cinematography becomes far too calculated, too polished to sustain any sense of suspense. Eastwood is content using the sports movie conventions to slowly build toward an inevitable finale, one devoid of excitement or tension. The ideas for unity are strong, but the execution lacks depth of conflict.

While the true story of Mandela and the Springboks remains undeniably essential in terms of our modern historical context, Eastwood’s treatment remains unforgivably syrupy. His didactic ideologies seep through the perfectly composed visuals, in turn feeding a ravenously sentimental musical score constantly complimenting the endless shots of crowds celebrating, blacks and whites rejoicing together under an open blue sky.

The glaring failure to convey subtext only heightens the knowledge of how great Eastwood can be with potentially hollow material. A Perfect World remains an indelible example, a beautifully constructed period piece on the clash between 1950’s childhood innocence and adult sin, poetically exploring the nuances of each character beneath the surface. But unlike World, the heart and soul of Invictus exists entirely for easy digestion, without doubt of the process or end result. Invictus not only falls prey to the pitfalls of the Sports genre, but also becomes a tired time-capsule of personal wistfulness, ignoring the glaring complexities of the social and political situations occurring beyond the playing field, while joyously reveling in the befuddlement of the spectacle. Victory and unity are only this harmonious in the fantasy dreamscape of Hollywood.

Hell On Earth: Darkness and Light in Se7en (Fincher, 1995)

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Comparing the opening and ending scenes in David Fincher’s Se7en goes a long way toward understanding the film’s devastating combination of dark spaces, drowning ambient sound, and urban decay. Before Kyle Cooper’s fragmented credit sequence, Fincher introduces Det. William Sommerset (Morgan Freeman) preparing for another day in his cramped, dimly lit apartment. Sommerset washes dishes, carefully puts on a tie, lays out his professional essentials (badge, knife, wallet, pen), puts on his coat only before picking off a piece of lint, then calmly turns off a lamp. These actions are juxtaposed with continuous, droning noise from the city beyond, immediately establishing the space as an expanding, shifting, and uneasy environment. Fincher then cuts to a medium shot of a body laying face down in a pool of dark blood, the textures of the space flickering off sharp light consumed by overwhelming darkness. Another detective explains the “crime of passion” just committed, then Sommerset replies, “Yeah just look at all that passion on the wall.” Cynical professionalism incarnate. The rest of the film pits Sommerset’s numbness against Det. Mills’ (Brad Pitt) naive eagerness and this clash of ideologies builds to a staggering conclusion.

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Passion and vengeance define the ending of Se7en as well, but Fincher stages the dramatic daylight finale in the middle of nowhere, an endless prairie of dead grass framed by distant mountains and dissected by dense telephone towers and wires. Instead of close-ups, Fincher’s favored shot throughout the film, wide angle images dominate, flooded with natural light and kinetic movement, often in the form of POV shots from the circling SWAT helicopter. Since Fincher’s goal is maximum tension and suspense, these shots quiver, jolt, and crush the camera’s eye-line. The sound design combines disjointed bursts of ambient noise with Howard Shore’s menacing requiem. In contrast to the dank and foul interiors of the film’s urban sprawl, these moments are even more horrific because their is no escape, no unsolved anomaly, no crazy uncertainty to distance the characters from the deadly reality. Even though light finally reveals the surface of John Doe’s plan, so much remains unexplained.

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So in the end, light and dark display different variations of hell on earth, completing John Doe’s “masterpiece” and the film’s narrative arc in a very unsettling way. Instinct destroys rational thought, and Mills inevitably succumbs to his own vision of heroism. Sommerset is left in limbo, watching his partner descend into the realm of madness, while John Doe gets off scot free with a bullet to the head. In the world of Se7en, we wait for those around us to get picked off by the evils of the earth, all the while selfishly hoping we aren’t next. The rain will never end, and so we helplessly watch in horror.