December 11, 2009


There’s technically nothing wrong with Invictus.  Clint Eastwood’s direction is smart, Morgan Freeman gives a fantastic performance as Nelson Mandela, the pacing is steady, the script is well written, and it has a straightforward moral message about the power of forgiveness.  But there’s not much you can do with the film after you see it.  Invictus never crosses that line where you have to think about the movie, consider its themes, or even feel like cheering.  It gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling for two hours and then you’re done.

Invictus_movie_image_morgan_freeman.jpgIf Nelson Mandela were Catholic, he would be known as Saint Mandela.  Incarcerated for 27 years, Mandela was elected President of South Africa in 1994 following his release from prison in 1990.  However, his election and the breaking of apartheid caused a major political and cultural shift where the majority black population finally came into power after years of oppression by the white minority.  Extreme tension obviously continued to exist between the two races but Mandela seeks to break the cycle of conflict through forgiveness, even if it means upsetting his supporters.  The film picks up shortly after Mandela’s election as he tries to find a way to inspire all South Africans and ease the enmity between whites and blacks in his country.

Mandela’s cultural plan is simple but quite ingenious: He wants the South African rugby team the Springboks to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup even though they’re an awful team.  Led by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), a good man and a committed captain, Mandela believes the success of the Springboks can provide a cultural connection between the races since sports are a simple competition with nothing to lose but can provide a shared rallying point when a team is winning (fair-weather fans!). It’s not a bad plan to have South Africans find a common, albeit simple, goal despite their intense dislike of each other caused by decades of strife.  Thankfully, while Eastwood shows Mandela’s commitment to encouraging the Boks, he makes sure to show the leader working on matters of the state so the audience doesn’t think that Mandela dropped everything to watch sports.

Invictus_movie_image_matt_damon.jpgEastwood’s direction in Invictus is more restrained than in previous films as he turns his focus to conveying the racial conflict and explaining a sport that is foreign to most Americans (that will happen when other countries describe rugby as “American football but not for pussies,” because that’s the way to get Americans interested in your sport), but without getting bogged down in a history lesson or a breakdown of the intricacies of rugby.  He accomplishes his goals by providing visual cues where we get a basic understanding of the deep-seated enmity among South Africans and a rough sense of how rugby is played.  It’s an impressive feat of editing and visual storytelling.

Of course, it’s Freeman who will get the most attention as all famous actors do when portraying an icon.  The best and the worst aspect of Freeman’s performance is its warmth and kindness.  You can understand Mandela’s power to inspire and marvel at his gracious attitude towards both his supporters and detractors.  At the same time, Anthony Peckham’s script believes it humanizes Mandela because he misses his family and works himself to the point of exhaustion.  Unfortunately, you don’t humanize a character by making him or her too saintly.  While Mandela’s story is essentially a hagiography, at least it has a strong message about forgiveness, which I think is a trait in short supply these days as holding a grudge is valued as a strength.  I wish Matt Damon’s story had a point as well, but Pienaar has no character arc.  He starts off apolitical and deeply admires Mandela by the end of the movie.  It’s barely a transformation and the role is a waste of Damon’s considerable talent.

Invictus comes out to less than the sum of its parts.  Never an awful movie, it promotes important values like unity, humility, and compassion, and I agree that those values are important and we should all strive to incorporate them into our daily lives.  Watching characters embody those values feels good in the same way a warm bath feels good or reading a book on a rainy Sunday afternoon feels good.  But it doesn’t make for an interesting movie and Invictus, unlike Mandela’s gambit with the Springboks, fails to inspire.

Rating —– B minus

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