It is a testimony to Clint Eastwood's gifts as a film director that he has managed to turn "Invictus," an inspirational sports story set against the backdrop of Nelson Mandela's rise to power in South Africa, into an entertaining, genuinely feel-good cinematic experience.
Despite an overly simplistic plot-line and characterizations that capture the essence of the film's characters without ever fleshing them out, "Invictus" nearly becomes a darn fine film behind Eastwood's patient, intelligent direction and performances from Morgan Freeman, as Mandela, and Matt Damon, as Springboks captain Francois Pienaar, that somehow manage to create living, breathing human beings out of cardboard dialogue and platitudes.
"Invictus" starts off in 1990 as long-held political prisoner Nelson Mandela is released from prison as the Springboks, South Africa's essentially all-white Rugby team, and a group of younger black South Africans play in opposite fields. Quickly, Mandela rises to power and, despite the overwhelming hatred that blacks hold for the Springboks, Mandela risks his political future by encouraging support for this beloved representative of white culture in South Africa.
Much of "Invictus" follows the Springboks team as it attempts to win the hearts of a black population it once oppressed, while also becomes inspired to transcend its mediocrity through Mandela's unexpected support after Pienaar is summoned to tea with Mandela and is quickly swept up into Mandela's sense of hope and purpose.
While Eastwood's patient approach gives "Invictus" room to breathe and an infectious spirit, the truth is that Eastwood has always been a bit of an "Mr. Obvious" director. It's one thing to be patient with a scene, but Eastwood far too often has a tendency to linger on images, ideas, scenes and words that he feels a need to stress. The same thing happens in "Invictus," as Eastwood often seems hellbent on stressing the gosh darn magnificence of Mandela by allowing Freeman to strike a pose, saunter in the sunlight and seemingly pause next to every important word he speaks. Used sparingly, this can be an effective approach, however, used frequently it becomes more of a gimmick. In the first 30-45 minutes of "Invictus," it is used FREQUENTLY.
This is not to say, in any way, that Freeman is ineffective as Mandela. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. While he's far more effective in the film's latter, more relaxed and humanity-laden scenes, Freeman nicely exudes Mandela's calculated, quiet dignity that seems to constantly contemplate how best to bring racial unity to his beloved country. Quietly, Freeman also brings to life Mandela's playfulness, his fatherly playfulness with the women around him as his wife, from whom he would be divorced two years after his prison release, has seemingly left the picture. Freeman clearly relishes this leading role, and plays Mandela with both reverence and humility. A Golden Globe nomination is not out of the question for Freeman, though Academy Award recognition would be a bit more of a stretch.
Initially appearing to be not much more than a spoiled brat with a gift for rugby, Matt Damon's Francois Pienaar basically grows up into manhood after being inspired and challenged by Mandela to defy odds and win the World Cup while simultaneously working to win the hearts of a post-Apartheid South Africa. Having grown up in a typical white South African family, that is anti-black, Pienaar is transformed by Mandela's vision and, indeed, the more transformed Pienaar becomes the more electrifying Damon is to behold onscreen. While Damon isn't really given much more to do than be buff, play rugby and occasionally spout captain-like sayings to his rugby squad, Damon manages to infuse Francois with a balanced humanity that makes one hope his evolution will be complete by film's end.
At 134 minutes, "Invictus" is a good 30 minutes longer than it needs to be and much of this is due to Eastwood's "Mr. Obvious" direction, lingering camera shots and a final rugby match that is only mildly invigorating and unjustifiably 20 minutes long. So, too, Eastwood rather oddly has repeated scenes that build up a heightened sense of a potential attempt on Mandela's life in this post-apartheid society. While there's no doubt that such a reality existed, having no fewer than four extended sequences around this possibility without any payoff or mention that such a possibility ever manifested seems like more a cinematic plot device than anything that actually builds the storyline.
Secondary characters in "Invictus" are largely irrelevant and underdeveloped, even those given a few moments to shine (most notably Pienaar's family and their housekeeper). Based upon a book by John Carlin, Anthony Peckham's script is largely formulaic and filled to the brim with grandiose platitudes and new age philosophy.
Rather surprisingly for an Eastwood pic, "Invictus" is perhaps most hurt by a godawful musical score supplied by son Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens along with accompanying songs that sound uncomfortably like Backstreet Boys in Soweto. The songs, in particular, are annoyingly pop-ish with laughably insufferable lyrics meant to inspire.
Despite its numerous problems, ultimately "Invictus" is an infinitely watchable, interesting and inspiring film that continues Eastwood's recent trend creating films that address universal themes in the ordinary, everyday experiences of life. While "Invictus" is a flawed film, it is a film that will likely entertain both history buffs and fans of sports films. While Eastwood never dumbs down rugby, a sport not exactly embraced in the United States, he does present it in a way that even those who don't understand its inner workings are likely to be enthralled with the way it comes to life.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic