Review: Invictus


I think there’s actually a proverb somewhere that says “On one of three things a film contends for Oscars: Clint Eastwood directing, Morgan Freeman acting and a compelling historical figure as the lead role.” The person who first uttered this saying would take one look at “Invictus” and say: “well that’s not fair.” But despite being predestined for Oscar glory, “Invictus” amounts to a simple feel-good sports and human interest story in the hands of exceptional talent.

The main source of antagonism in “Invictus” is the fear and embittered attitudes of its characters: the people (both black and white) of post-Apartheid South Africa during the beginning of Nelson Mandela’s presidency in the early ’90s. That might be poetic, but it’s not exactly the stuff that great drama and conflict is made of. The only suspense created is by the posing of two questions: Can South Africa can win the rugby world cup and can it begin mend and rebuild itself under Mandela’s wise guidance? Interesting, but not exactly riveting stuff for a two-hour and 14-minute film.

Still, Clint Eastwood directs the heck out of this only slightly compelling script by Anthony Peckham based on the John Carlin book. Eastwood turns the mild events of the film into microcosms of racial discord. He creates similar black and white imagery to echo these intentions too. Mandela’s security staff are the best example. At first Mandela’s black guards are furious they have to work with white men, but we watch them grow closer and Eastwood slides images of the guards traveling in cars by race at one point then showing them mixed toward the end. Subtle and effective, this milks the story for all it’s worth.

You also won’t find an inspirational sports story that manages to avoid cliché better than “Invictus.” Eastwood keeps the focus on the people and the symbolic meaning of rugby while still bringing us into the action. There aren’t any banal last chances, miracle plays or excessive celebrations. Some of those techniques are used, but you won’t roll your eyes at “Invictus” and you’ll truly understand what the cup meant to South Africa.

Freeman and Matt Damon as South Africa rugby captain Francois Pienaar are two other towering forces working to add depth and emotion to the film. After this fall’s “The Informant!” Damon continues to impress with his versatility. The combination of tough-guy and emotional leader makes Pienaar a role that suits him very well. He continues to become one of the finest actors of his generation, even if this role is understated.

Freeman gives us as much as he can muster in a script that drastically undercuts his complexity. Needless to say, however, the role is indeed perfect for him. He gives us hints of inner tensions and personal problems along with the colorful personality and pristinely delivered inspirational quotes. It’s important to note this is not a biopic of Mandela, but a brief history of what times were like when he came into office and how he saw rugby as a way to erase the cycle of hate and unify his country.

Although it starts to burden its audience with a lot of rugby footage toward the end, “Invictus” is an excellent feel-good movie. Where it falls short is in being constantly engaging and complex. Having a triumvirate of Oscar-caliber talents in this case is more an instance of putting forth the maximum effort to lift a pleasant story as high as possible. As producer, Eastwood saw a lot of likable stuff in this story and he made it better than anyone else would have. Palate-wise, “Invictus” is like glorified homemade cooking as opposed to the layers and intricacies of gourmet.

3.5/5 Stars

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Anthony Peckham (screeplay), John Carlin (book)
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon


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