Commentary

"Invictus" failed to deliver

The rugby drama didn't match its hype, but 2009 had other great sports movies

Originally Published: December 31, 2009
By Bill Simmons | ESPN.com

My one-sentence review for "The Blind Side" and "Invictus": One movie was a little too Hollywood; the other wasn't Hollywood enough. Thank you, Godspeed and Happy New Year. See you in 2010.

(What? You're demanding a whole column? Come on! It's a holiday week! You can't throw me this one bone?)

(Fine, fine. You guilted me into it. I hate you.)

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon
Warner Bros. Pictures Yes, we all know South Africa wins -- but "Invictus" doesn't tell us how it does so.

While watching "Invictus," I had an idea during one of the few moments when I wasn't obsessing over the insanity of Matt Damon being cast as 6-foot-3 South African rugby legend Francois Pienaar. You know how Dwight Howard stands out on a basketball court? That was Pienaar on a rugby field. Six-3, built like granite, bowled over guys like Brandon Jacobs. Since Damon can't be taller than 5-9, they took one of the most imposing physical specimens in rugby history and eliminated the quality that made him memorable. It made as much sense as casting Damon as Dirk Nowitzki. Ah, screw it, he's an A-lister, we need him. ... We'll just make Nowitzki a point guard, nobody will notice. Sorry. I noticed. And couldn't get past it.

Anyway, here was my idea: I wish there were a game show in which contestants watched a sports movie, then were able to pause the movie and predict either the next scene, the next moment or the director's next decision. For "Invictus," I would have turned into Ken Jennings during his epic "Jeopardy" run. I would have gone like 55-for-58. I could see every angle, plot device or lump-in-the-throat decision coming down the highway from three miles away. For instance, at the beginning of the climactic match -- South Africa shocking New Zealand to win the 1995 Rugby Cup (and don't tell me I needed a spoiler alert, because if you never knew this happened, I don't know what to tell you) -- we see a destitute black kid lingering near a South African police car as two white cops listen to a radio broadcast. The cops angrily shoo him away.

PAUSE BUTTON!

Here's what I would have told the host of my fake game show: "I'd like to predict how this plays out! I bet they keep cutting back to the black kid and white cops during the game, and every time, I bet the black kid has inched closer to the car, and when South Africa finally wins, I bet the black kid and the white cops celebrate together, and the symbolism will be that sports can bring blacks and whites together even in a place like South Africa. I'll wager $3,200 on this!"

It's just a lazy movie filled with lazy moments like that one. And normally, this wouldn't bother me that much. But we're talking about one of the most inspiring sports events of the 20th century. Nelson Mandela gets out of prison, wins the presidency of South Africa, then throws his support behind the country's national rugby team (the Springboks, an almost entirely white team that South African blacks always had hated), hoping the team might succeed in its 1995 Cup and heal some of his country's seemingly irreparable racial wounds. That's exactly what happens. The ninth-seeded South Africans pull off a few upsets, make the finals and shock the invincible New Zealanders in extra time for the championship. Where was the World Cup held that year? South Africa.

("Hoosiers" + rugby) x (Nelson Mandela) = layup. So how did director Clint Eastwood screw it up?

The first problem: making Mandela the movie's lead character in a misguided attempt to be an *important* film that transcended sports. Sure, Morgan Freeman nailed the difficult accent as well as the dignified, congenial way Mandela carried himself. But isn't Freeman always dignified and congenial? This was like watching Red walk around Shawshank with better clothes and a cooler accent. I just couldn't get past it. Hiring Freeman to play Mandela was too easy -- like getting Omar Epps to star in the Mike Tomlin story or something. Plus, the same qualities that made Mandela such a wonderful human being prohibit him from being a compelling movie lead. Freeman plays Mandela correctly as a proud man with a huge heart. He speaks softly, in something of a stilted monotone. He keeps smiling and inspiring people despite all the horrible things that had happened to him, except he wasn't a commanding presence who brought a room to life like, say, Martin Luther King Jr., or even Herm Edwards. There was nothing to figure out about him, no surprises coming, no layers that needed to be peeled back. He was just a great and understated man.

Now, Hollywood knew this. The filmmakers knew this. Why do you think it took so long to make "Invictus"? They couldn't figure out how to translate Mandela to the big screen for two hours. What they should have done: Built "Invictus" around the rugby team, made it a sports movie, then made Mandela a supporting character for effect. Ideally, we would have seen him five or six times at most to maximize his presence (like how Jack Nicholson was used in "A Few Good Men"), so every time he appeared on screen, it would have felt powerful and substantial.

Why wasn't this done? Because "Invictus" never would've been made without Morgan Freeman saying the words, "Sure, I'll play Mandela." He's the one who made the funding happen, then lured Eastwood and Damon. He's the one about whom Mandela himself said, "That's who I want to play me in a movie." And Morgan Freeman ain't playing Mandela unless it's a juicy part. So they flipped the story around, made Mandela the focus and shoved the rugby team into the background. In my opinion, a major mistake.

If you saw "Invictus" already, ask yourself these questions: Can you remember the name of one guy on South Africa's rugby team other than Damon's character? (I bet you can't.) Can you remember the name of the coach? (You definitely can't -- we were apparently expected to believe this team coached itself.) How did a No. 9 seed with low expectations band together that quickly and win the whole thing? (Umm ... because Mandela's passion for the Springboks, like, inspired them or something? I don't know. It remains unclear.) If you knew nothing about rugby, could you have followed the game action at all? (No way. Impossible. Eastwood apparently thought Americans understood rugby as instinctively as we get basketball or baseball.) Did you learn ANYTHING about the team's one black player, who should have been just as compelling a character as Pienaar? (Nope. I can't even remember his name.)

In "Hoosiers," you can point to 35 different little moments that helped propel Hickory High to the state title. In "Invictus," you leave the theater remembering only Damon's character doing the "Come on, guys, let's do this!" routine in 32 different ways. I'd love to see the rough outline of the script.

Scene 32: Damon enters the weight room, tells everyone that they gotta do this.

Scene 42: Damon enters the locker room, tells everyone that they gotta do this.

Scene 58: Damon huddles the team together at midfield, tells everyone that they gotta do this.

It's sports-movie fluff. All sizzle, no steak. And that leads me to our second problem: Eastwood. Because Hollywood doesn't get analyzed like sports -- we don't create complicated statistics to evaluate careers or even use recent history to determine whether someone is better or worse than the general public might think -- our perception is that Eastwood is one of the best directors. Within Hollywood circles, his directing is legendary for a different reason: Eastwood bangs out expensive movies under budget and ahead of schedule. Doesn't shoot a ton of takes, doesn't drift from the script, doesn't waste afternoons waiting for the sun to set just right, stuff like that. He's the most efficient director working today. Because we like him personally, he gets more credit than he deserves (in particular, "Gran Torino" and "Mystic River" were wildly overrated) and a free pass every time he makes a clunker. (Check out his directing filmography on IMDB, it's clunker-heavy.) By all accounts, Eastwood bangs out a project, takes a few weeks off, then bangs out the next one.

So how can we call him a great director? Or even a good one? Is efficiency the best trait for directing? Think of the time James Cameron spent creating a 3-D world in "Avatar" or Jason Reitman spent crafting "Up in the Air," then ask yourself this question: What would have happened if "Invictus" had been driven by someone with that kind of passion? Potentially, it would have been one of the greatest sports movies ever made, right?

Instead, it's exactly the kind of film I expected: predictable and generic, like a lavish TV movie, only if they had expanded the budget to pay for Freeman and Damon. Where was the racial tension on the rugby team? Why did they improve so dramatically? What would have happened had the same story been told through the eyes of Pienaar and the team's sole black player and if they had taken a few factual liberties over doing a de facto documentary with real actors? Why not intersperse the faked rugby footage with real 1995 footage of talking heads explaining South Africa's improbable Cup run? Why not have a fake announcer (a gimmick I normally hate) narrating the action to help us out with the dramatic arc of every match?

Playing off that last point: Remember how the climactic game in "Victory" captured all the things that make soccer great? "Invictus" failed to do that for rugby. The matches leading up to the final are brief and impossible to follow -- wait, they're shaking hands, I think this means they won! -- and then, the final match stretches for 20 solid minutes, only we don't have an announcer, so basically, we're expected to guess the score or hope we can see a scoreboard in the background. For once, I found myself watching a sports movie that needed to be Hollywooded-up. And don't tell me that they were "staying true to the story," because, again, Matt Damon was playing Francois Pienaar. Aren't all bets off at that point?

So what was this ... a real movie or a sports movie? It's hard for me to believe that anything ending with a 20-minute sporting event isn't a sports movie, but I didn't get the chills once. (Given this specific story, that's indefensible.) I didn't care about a single player other than Damon, who nailed a limited role, crushed the accent and really did seem like a rugby player (just not a 6-3 specimen). My favorite moment of the climactic game was New Zealand's Haka chant, if only because it reminded me of the idiots on "Real World/Road Rules Challenge." My second-favorite moment was Eastwood's son playing the actor who made the winning kick, then getting a gratuitous close-up for a fist pump after it went through. Thanks, Dad! My third-favorite moment was the flyover before the final game -- with a real jumbo airliner! -- which did happen in real life and would cause a riot if it happened now. And that's about it.

Again, this was one of the greatest real-life sports stories of the 20th century with one of the biggest heroes of the 20th century prominently involved. And it produced a solid, serviceable, somewhat plodding, chill-free, ultimately forgettable movie that definitely came in under budget. Shoot me, I thought such an incredible story deserved better. Apparently the filmmakers thought a sports movie was beneath them; they wanted to be bigger and weightier than that, and in the end, what they made was fluff. "Invictus" should have been the "Chariots of Fire" of this decade. It wasn't.

* * * * *

You know what shocked me? I enjoyed "The Blind Side" more. (And so did the rest of America. At the time of this writing, "The Blind Side" had become the surprise hit of the holidays, while "Invictus" opened well below expectations.) Sure, it's a Hollywood sports movie through and through: one of those "based on a true story" plots with a strong premise (wealthy, white Memphis family adopts a homeless, black kid who also happens to be gigantic, and with their urging he takes up football and becomes a top college prospect) that gets the full-fledged Hollywood treatment (like a comically bad scene in which the homeless kid beats up a room full of drug dealers, as if that really happened). They don't overload it with saccharine moments, but when they do happen, it's like getting a 25-pound pack of Equal whipped at you at 35 miles per hour.

For instance ...

--Gigantic Homeless Kid (looking at his new bedroom): "I never had one of these before."
--Sandra Bullock: "What, your own room?"
--Gigantic Homeless Kid: "No, my own bed."

(Cut to Sandy fighting off tears.)

Or this one ...

--Bullock's friend (praising her): "You're changing his life."
--Bullock (dramatic pause): "No, he's changing mine."
--Simmons: "And he's the best sex I've ever had."
--Sports Gal: "Shut up! Stop talking!"

I gotta be honest: I'm such a cynical bastard that I eat up movies like this. Give me something that maintains my interest, attaches me to one or two characters, tugs at my ice-cold heartstrings and allows me to get off five to six decent jokes to anger my wife, and I'm happy. I'm also a sucker for "based on a true story" sports movies when the protagonist is still kicking butt in real life; in this case, the homeless kid (Michael Oher) became Baltimore's 2009 first-round draft pick and has played exceptionally well, a stroke of luck that gives the movie a present-tense weightiness. It's one thing to read about Oher (in Michael Lewis' excellent book); it's another to actually see "him" walking around sadly with no place to go or unraveling emotionally as an NCAA investigator grills him on his college choice. I feel attached to him now. Even as I was making jokes about him boinking Sandra Bullock in the movie.

Of course, when you want to make money with a family-oriented sports movie in 2009, the formula is simple: Find a real-life story so you can do the "based on a true story" deal (if it includes some sort of black/white issue, even better), build it around one starring role, pay a recognizable star big money as your lead, don't splurge on any other parts, then stick the star on the poster and have him or her promote the hell out of it. Hence, the quality of nearly every modern sports movie depends directly on the performance of its star. It's the reason "Remember the Titans" and "Miracle" resonated, but "Glory Road" came and went.

So the success of "The Blind Side" was tied directly to this question: "Who's playing the mother?" When I found out it was Bullock, I remember thinking, "Wow, they couldn't get Julia Roberts! Is she trapped under something? Somebody call the police!" (And actually, they DID try to get Julia. She passed. Come on, Jules! You could have walked around with a push-up bra and tight skirts like you did in "Erin Brockovich"! What were you thinking?) I never thought the Nolan Ryan of chick flicks could carry a sports movie. Wrong. Bullock owns every scene and hasn't been this likable since "28 Days." Even better, she exhibits the same Southern sassiness/sexiness that Roberts didn't have in "Charlie Wilson's War" (in which she mortally wounded the movie by butchering her scenes). It's worth seeing this movie just for Bullock. I certainly didn't expect a performance like this from her. She out-Juliaed Julia.

That doesn't mean the movie goes swimmingly. The football scenes aren't very good. There's no "Here comes the big game!" payoff. It's inexplicably two hours long. (It should have been 20 minutes shorter.) Bullock's character's husband, a big Ole Miss booster in real life and much more important in Lewis' book, gets tossed to the wayside as a nodding, grinning, whipped husband who doesn't appear to work or have a say in anything. The little brother in the movie is woefully miscast and looks as if he was kicked out of a Macaulay Culkin cloning camp. (As my friend Rydholm joked, "Who woulda thought that they'd have a casting problem with the 8-year-old white kid and not the 350-pound athletic black teenager?") They make a terrible mistake of using real-life college coaches -- none of whom can act, all of whom are distracting -- to recruit Michael, which stretches a 20-second "Look, he's getting recruited!" montage into 10 wasted minutes.

Whatever. At the very least, it's a quality spork flick. That's a term I coined in 2005 to cover any chick flick that disguises itself as a sports movie, except enough is in there to make male AND female viewers happy. Easier said than done. In this case, the Sports Gal loved "The Blind Side," and I came out of it thinking, "It nearly gave me diabetes, but I have to say, it wasn't that bad." That's a win-win date movie for Team Simmons. And by the way, the Sports Gal would have fallen asleep during "Invictus."

You know what bugs me? These will end up being the two "defining" sports movies of 2009. I liked three others better. In reverse order ...

3. "Big Fan"
Patton Oswalt plays a loser Giants fan who crosses paths with his favorite player ... with decidedly unfavorable results. Maybe it was overly dark and missed easy chances to poke fun at our obsession with sports (and parody the sports-radio culture), but I was hooked the whole time. It's one of those movies in which, at the 45-minute mark, you say to yourself, "All right, I thought I knew where this was going, but I don't." And if you're a die-hard sports nut, you might see a tiny piece of yourself in Oswalt and his Giants buddy, just enough to make you go, "Hold on, I'm not like that, right? (Long pause.) Nahhhhhhh." It's worth seeing.

2. "The Damned United"
The true story of Brian Clough, an accomplished English soccer manager in the '60s and '70s who feuded with Leeds United (the Manchester United of that era) before improbably taking Leeds over, then botching the job so badly that they fired him after 44 days. It's a famous English soccer saga that means nothing in America, but imagine Belichick taking over the Colts from Dungy this past summer and then getting fired in Week 6, and you have an idea of how loony this episode was. I wouldn't call it a soccer flick as much as a movie about how hubris can bring anyone down. It's exceptionally well-acted by a murderer's row of European actors (Michael Sheen, Colm Meaney, Jim Broadbent), with Sheen nailing Clough and cementing his inclusion in any "Who's the best 40-and-under actor right now?" discussion. Clough was such a complicated guy -- bombastic, self-centered, arrogant, consumed by a noble hatred for cheap play -- that it's hard to believe anyone could make him likable from beginning to end. But Sheen did it.

Actually, I thought Clough was the most memorable sports-movie manager/coach in a long time, which goes back to the Mandela issue mentioned earlier: A great person doesn't necessarily make for a great movie character. If anything, you want flawed and unpredictable with your lead guy. Clough had me on the edge of my seat for 100 minutes. What is he doing? Where is this going? What is he thinking? Just a well-done, well-acted movie that came and went because Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman weren't in it. Arrrrrrgh.

1. "Sugar"
One of the 20 or 25 best sports movies ever. Deeply affecting. Brilliantly executed. Brought me into a world I never knew. Made me rethink every notion I had about professional baseball and especially the experiences of Dominican players to the degree that I am still re-evaluating my feelings about every Latino player who cheated during the steroids era. Went in a direction I never expected it to go. Left me breathless when it was over. I loved it.

My only critique would be that "Sugar" didn't have a chill scene. But was that a bad thing? As I've written ad nauseam, all "classic" sports movies need at least one chill scene. Daniel-san's crane kick. Rocky waving Apollo over and Apollo's shoulders sinking. Paul Crewe paying homage to Granny and Caretaker. Roy Hobbs hitting the lights and the Knights leaping out of the dugout. Ollie making the second free throw. You need at least one under old-school sports-movie rules, and if you can come up with three or four, even better.

Now it's the first day of 2010. Hollywood has been cranking out old-school sports movies for 36 years, dating back to Burt Reynolds in "The Longest Yard" (the spiritual godfather of modern sports movies). We have seen every conceivable "underdog prevails concept -- and we're a little worn out by it -- which" makes me wonder whether the old rules have gone by the wayside. The best sports movies from 2000 to 2009 were "The Wrestler," "Sugar," "Million Dollar Baby," "Murderball," "Friday Night Lights," "61*," "Remember the Titans," "Miracle," "Seabiscuit" and "The Rookie" in some order. Only the last four were old-school. None of those four was released after 2004.

You know what that tells me? My "chill scene" rule doesn't matter anymore. Hollywood will keep cranking out old-school sports movies, just as it will keep banging out spork flicks and casting Matt Damon as a 6-3 rugby god. The filmmakers don't know any better. Occasionally, a "Blind Side" will makes gobs of money and justify that mindset. But if the past decade proved anything, it's that we don't need old-school rules to make memorable sports movies anymore. I will remember "The Wrestler," I will remember "Murderball" and I will definitely remember "Sugar."

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos and more, check out Sports Guy's World. His new book, "The Book of Basketball," is now available.

Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.