Invictus carries with it all the tenable characteristics of a movie destined for critical lauding. Its director, Clint Eastwood, has encountered an unprecedented late-late-career revival in which each of his releases (and he makes a lot of films very quickly) are met with such hot anticipation that critical approval is often met even before its opening. Secondly, the film presents itself as an “inspiring true story,” and melds together the two genres most prone to assemble inspiring narratives of reality: the sports movie and the biopic. Thirdly, the film stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, a casting choice that isn’t as inspired as it is inevitable.
I’d hesitate to call Invictus an Oscar grab because – unlike films that, say, the Weinsteins released in the late 90s and early 00s – it seems that everybody involved in Eastwood productions are genuinely, even earnestly, most interested in telling a good story. Yet Invictus, like the textbook examples of the Oscar grab, never quite earns the importance or serious respect that permeates throughout its tone and presentation. As I reach into my grab bag of critical terminology to describe my reaction to Eastwood’s latest, I come up only with well-worn rhetoric that, nonetheless, fits perfectly to the experience one has walking out of this film: Invictus is disappointing, a major missed opportunity.
While several of my colleagues were unable to invest themselves into the film from the get-go in the ham-fisted quasi-symbolic illustration of apartheid that is its opening sequence (white kids and black kids play rugby on either side of a road while a cavalcade of cars drive through the middle taking Nelson Mandela out of prison while the white rugby coach says his only line of dialogue meant to stand-in for all of white South African racism, and Eastwood proves that he possesses a troublesome relationship with subtlety even when not working with Paul Haggis), I found the film to be quite promising for its first half-hour or so.
Freeman and screenwriter Anthony Peckham portray Mandela as a man who understands that the politically symbolic act is often not just symbolic. The film’s first real hints of promise come in probably the only scene where he exhibits the leadership skills that gained him selection as South Africa’s president in the first place, a scene where a citizen-made sports council votes to change the name of South Africa’s white-dominated rugby team before the world cup, an act intended to exhibit repossession of the African country by its original inhabitants. Mandela, however, doesn’t see himself as a symbol of South Africa’s return to racially and culturally homogenous roots, but as a progressive figure aiming to find some middle ground in the reality of two clashing, sometimes antagonistic cultures occupying the same land. In this scene he displays skill at bipartisanship, always acknowledging that the unpopular decision may be the one necessary to achieve the larger goal. It is in this respect that the cinematic Mandela gains justification for the weight the movie puts on the 1995 Rugby World Cup, as the unified support for their team not only symbolizes a newly unified South Africa, but in effect actively creates such unification. If Eastwood delivered on this promise, perhaps Invictus would’ve been a great movie.
In execution everything from here on out comes across as a non-event with questionable worthiness for a filmic adaptation on this scale. The potential of the material is rich; recent historical politics of race and a newly elected black leader’s struggling attempts at bipartisanship in a divided country could have permitted Invictus to contain a particularly timely weight of meaning, especially combined with the sport of rugby – a fascinating, very violent sport that, when seen live, is an incredibly exciting cinematic spectacle in its own right. However, lazy shortcuts are made in the contextualization of early nineties South African politics of race, and little is done to illustrate the landscape of a recent post-Apartheid nation. The only insight we get is stock footage at the film’s beginning and a weak, uninteresting microcosmic sub-narrative of post-apartheid paranoia in the conflict between the white and black member’s of Mandela’s security team. Yet when it is all said and done, it feels as if nothing has been accomplished. The weight of the progress the rugby tournament has made is completely lost on the audience. There is no indication whatsoever as to what effect this could have had to the rest of Mandela’s presidency (and no, text over an epilogue doesn’t count). All the cheering and the rousing and the smiling and the hugging at Invictus’s inevitable conclusion (would this story have been told had it turned out any other way?) begs us to read significance, but doesn’t do the homework necessary to make it convincing. Instead, we get a petty story about Mandela’s security team and weird, unnecessary, and even potentially irresponsible diversions like the moment of a potential assassination-turned-prank that seems to exist only as an odd way to extend the film’s running time and to give excitement to an otherwise cinematically lifeless rugby game.
One of the film’s major problems in failing to achieve a necessary level of magnitude in the tournament is the positing of Mandela and team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) as the film’s dual protagonists. They are meant to embody two sides of the same coin necessary to achieve South African unity, but never once does Damon get a chance to show off any of the leadership skills in Pienaar that Mandela so explicitly admires. It’s not because of Damon’s performance, which is fine, but because of the way he is portrayed, that Pienaar comes across as forgettable, inconsequential character who is no way shows a clear delineation from the rest of the rugby team. In his few moments with Mandela on screen, the two show little chemistry or connection, unintentionally suggesting a rather meaningless collaboration.
Like Damon, Freeman is similarly fine and little more. It seems that this is a role that Freeman was always meant to play, so it’s unfortunate that it’s in this movie rather than a superior film about the iconic figure. Attempts are made to humanize Mandela through the nowhere-bound subplot of his divorce, and Mandela instead comes across more as an inspirational quote machine, always readied with the exact words of wisdom for the exact time. Respectably, I have no doubt that this is, in many ways, how Mandela comes across in reality, but little insight is given into who he is beyond what he is most famous for across the sea, that is his beautiful rhetoric. Of course, through the mouth of Morgan Freeman, anything sounds important, but little is given for Mandela to do besides reinforce our dominant impressions of him. One of the film’s few touching moments comes in the rugby team’s tour of the prison Mandela stayed in, juxtaposed with Pienaar’s imagined observation of his daily prison life accompanied by Mandela’s words in Freeman’s contractually obliged voice-over. But I quickly realized that it was Mandela’s words, not Eastwood’s filming of them, that gave this sequence its only power and feeling.
Eastwood here makes a few curious decisions as director, replacing his typically monotonous self-scoring with an even-worse on-the-nose selection of songs (one moment, containing a song called “Colorblind,” is cringe-worthy beyond reproach). More evidently, the rugby games come across as bland and, with the exception of a few scratches here and there, Eastwood never exhibits the true violence and threat of consequence that is actually endured in this sport. Editing is awkwardly sloppy in moments and Tom Stern’s characteristically washed-out cinematography is uninspired.
I often find myself making excuses for Eastwood, overlooking the problems in execution that show up time and again in his films because of my faith in him as a behemoth of cinematic storytelling. But with Invictus, its problems are too apparent and hurt the film to the degree that, unlike Eastwood’s other work, there is no real substantive center to be found when peering beyond the glitches here and there. Some filmmakers can make films both fast and well, but I’m no longer convinced that Eastwood belongs in this same camp. Eastwood is a great filmmaker, and if he starts to treat his new material and reinvigorated career with the delicacy and respect it deserves (he can’t, for instance, make Invictus in the same way he made White Hunter, Black Heart), then he can make good on that greatness time and again.
The Upside: A potentially great story…
The Downside: …that is poorly realized in execution.
On the Side: Morgan Freeman really is contractually obliged to narrate at some point in all his films. True false fact.