Clint Eastwood’s latest cinematic opus Invictus meshes the strength and unifying power of sports with the uncertainty of political change. Based on the book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation” by John Carlin, Eastwood tries to neatly wrap the tumultuous rise of Nelson Mandela to South African power with that country’s national fascination with rugby. The output, surprisingly, is predictable and oft-times tedious. Is it possible that in his advanced age, Eastwood has finally begun to lose his story-telling ability?
I’d hate to answer that question with a “yes”, but it’s hard to not notice that Invictus is his worst yet.
With apartheid over, Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is tasked with unifying the country. The black majority wants revenge; the white minority fears the retribution. Seeing an opportunity (albeit a very controversial one) to unite the races, Mandela puts his support behind the Springboks, the all white rugby team gearing up for the World Cup to be held in, of all places, South Africa. To aid in his “heal the nation” plan, he enlists Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the team, to inspire his otherwise mediocre teammates to play for something larger than themselves.
While the underlying theme of Invictus is one to applaud, there isn’t much meat to the bone. The role of Nelson Mandela, a central figure to the film, is more a shell of a man, rather than the most complex. Little is done to build him up to the controversial figure that he is; instead most times he’s reduced to giving little motivational quips to members of his cabinet and the general populace. Freeman, a favorite actor of mine, is a fine choice for the part but I certainly believe he could have done much more with the role had he been given the opportunity to do so.
Even the amount offered to Damon as a white man finding profound belief in his new black leader’s words is lacking. Aside from the fact Mandela reached out specifically to him, Pienaar could have pretty much been any face in the crowd played by any actor begging for a job. I did note however, Damon’s South African accent was better than Freeman’s — something I probably should not have had the opportunity to notice and one I probably wouldn’t have had the film been more engrossing.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Eastwood’s direction has quite a bit to be desired too. The unity aspect of the movie is understood, but he over-emphasizes with soppiness at every turn, be it with poignant speeches or contrived set pieces. It doesn’t take long for these to turn one off to the importance of the message. His use of slow-motion for long portions of the movie, during a game I understand little about, wasn’t the best cinematography choice — it took a fast-paced and brutal game and muted it down to the level of excitement usually reserved for a curling match.
Invictus has its good moments too but those moments are too few and far between to overcome the many stumbles it encounters during its too long 134 minute running time. While the film has the obligatory finale one comes to expect from a sports movie it falls short of its mark to be all inspiring and powerfully uplifting. Too bad — a lot of possibility was left on the field.