With "Tree Of Life," out of the picture, the biggest question marks of the season are Rob Marshall's "Nine," Peter Jackson's "The Lovely Bones," and Clint Eastwood's Nelson Mandela-drama "Invictus." We decided to peer into the latter script to see if it helped glean further insight of its Oscar chances.
Anthony Peckham’s script for “Invictus” (formerly titled, "The Human Factor") holds within it all of the textbook ingredients of the cinderella sports-triumphs-over-social-ills movie. Overwritten and at times technically goofy in its execution, this draft of the script (dated 5/07) is flawed and has likely been massaged by director Clint Eastwood and Co. before cameras rolled on sometime last year. It has the makings of Oscar gold, but if it's shot the way it is on the page, we're kind of hoping it gets overlooked (though it is better than his pretty hokey and hamfisted script to "Sherlock Holmes").
The Synopsis: Nelson Mandela, the recently elected president of South Africa and a devoted rugby fan, seeks to bring together the Apartheid-split country he now leads. He sees his opportunities strike when his country’s ailing team (the much-despised, championed solely by the country's whites, Springboks) gets an automatic qualification in the World Cup.
The Longer Gist: The film follows the recently elected Mandela (Morgan Freeman, old pal of Clint's, also an actor) as he struggles to gain the trust of his countrymen after the devastating events of the Apartheid. Mandela attends a rugby match and sees the potential for a people to unite under. The film also chronicles the work routine of the Springboks, their captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, totally sporty actor), and the largely metaphorical relationship that existed between Pienaar and Mandela.
Peter Morgan Didn't Write this Script, but this script does feels like another Peter Morgan (i.e. “Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen”) historical do-over. In "Frost/Nixon" and "The Queen," Morgan built his well-known characters from the outside in — showing their assistants and servants, their daily routines, their famous-but-lonely nature, etc. In "Invictus," Peckham travels the same route, detailing Mandela's daily shaves, how he wakes up every morning, etc., to give us a private sense of the man and it works to some degree. We get into a rhythm with Mandela, we get his perspective on the early days of his presidency. But as the story expands to encompass the rugby storyline, Pienaar and the country at large, we lose rhythm and end up flopping about in the middle of the familiar sea of cinderella-sports-story cliches.
"Is that a Heartbeat or the Beating of an African Drum?" (actual line of description in the script) Screenwriter Peckham clearly likes the sport of rugby and sees the event described herein as an amazing moment in sports and South African history. After Apartheid ended and Mandela later became president, South African rugby team, The Springboks, became a symbol of all that once was wrong (to the newly empowered South Africans) and all that once was right (to the displaced Afrikaans). The Springboks were criticized for having Apartheid colors (colors that matched the flag of the Afrikaan-led South Africa) and in 1995, the South African National Council of Sports voted for the 'Boks to change colors. Moments after the vote, President Mandela appeared at the vote to press the Council to reverse their decision and keep the colors to save Afrikaans from further alienation from the country they had just lost control of (nice move, very Jesus-y).
An Education in Rugby (and in inspiration): The script itself is very focused on giving the viewer an education in rugby. This would seem fine (hey, we don't know dick), but when has any other sports movie given an education about a sport? Anywho, when we first meet the 'Boks, they suck (que cinderella), but after Mandela inspires the nation to reconcile and calls Coach Francois Pienaar over for a very motivational cup of tea, the team is slowly rebuilt by Pienaar (fueled by his newfound respect for Mandela, much to the chagrin of his racist teammates). Mandela shares with Pienaar an understanding of the trials of leadership and one of his secrets for getting through 20 years of wrongful imprisonment (spoiler alert, victorian poetry). It's a nice scene that captures a sense of Mandela's subtle and brilliant gift to inspire.
Scrum, Ruck, Unite: Unless Eastwood breaks the mold and goes non-linear or shows us less and infers more, there's just no getting around the sports cliches during the 2nd act. They're a ragtag team with little chance of winning made up largely of the old-school, Afrikaan mentality. Coach Pienaar is the team’s resident workhorse and in many scenes he’s at the head of the pack, working them hard. Having mind-melded with Mandela from the get-go, Pienaar knows his purpose and keeps his team of anti-Mandelers in-line. Meanwhile Mandela is running himself ragged trying to govern the country, rebuilding its ties across the globe, begging the global community for money while always keeping tabs on the 'Boks, looking forward to World Cup match. The Rugby President and Mandela even send the team on a country-wide trip to run rugby clinics and build excitement (which the largely white team vehemently resent). Lots of this is largely done in montage.
The Final Act is completely predictable, but hey it's not where you end up but how you get there, right? Mandela’s presence only helps so much. Yes, scenes of national unity over sports can still win over an audience hungry for a feel-good, but why not mature the genre, up-end the predictability by not showing the final goal, the hugging of formal rivals, the knowing smiles and tears of the ones who believed all along? Why not stay away from the playing field? Far away.Does it work? There’s something magical about Mandela and a uniting of a nation broken by Apartheid, but can it really be captured in the folds of a rugby story? Maybe, but should it be? Screenwriter Peckham is a bit lazy here and he should be shot for it (we kid), nah but seriously his at times he indolently describes a moment as "a very traditional sports hero's moment." Well put, real creative. It may have been better if Peckham had constructed a complete Mandela biopic. Here, Peckham only shines in his depictions of Mandela’s peaceful mannerisms and during a scene or two between Pienaar and Mandela. Eastwood has his work cut out for him and it will be all up to the actors to raise this so-so material.
Sure, Sure it doesn't Work, but What About it's Award Potential? If the critics and the public bite (and Eastwood lets Freeman and Damon work their more-than-capable on-screen magic), there's a good chance Freeman could snag a Best Actor Nominee and Damon a Best Supporting. If industry voters are in a paint-by-numbers mood, Eastwood could easily nail a Best Director nom, but a Best Picture only feels like a lock if an old pro editor convinces Clint to show less, cut more, and linger longer in the good graces of Mandela and away from the team practice montages. Will it be "Gran Torino" (ok, but not Oscar-bait) or "Million Dollar Baby" feel-goodery? It'll all be in the execution and we'll have to wait and see, but Eastwood does have the Oscar 10 on his side this year. But in a stronger year without 10 Best Picture Nominations, so-so Eastwood ('Torino,' "Changeling") probably wouldn't cut it. — Andrew Hart