This flick lovingly chronicles Nelson Mandela’s support of the 1994 South African rugby team.
For such a straightforward, often clumsy crowd-pleaser, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus still feels like a marvel of restraint. One of those movies you admire mainly because you spend most of the time realizing how terrible it probably would’ve been if entrusted to lesser hands, it’s really an exercise in withholding—in doing less with more.
Invictus will never be confused with one of Eastwood’s major works, but oddly enough it made me appreciate his low-key directorial approach in ways most of his masterpieces (and he’s racked up a quite a few of them over the years) never quite could. If there is a calmer, more thoughtful and compassionate filmmaker working today, I look forward to discovering their work. In the meantime, we’ve still got Clint.
Much like Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers , Invictus hinges on an act of shameless political calculation that serves the greater good. Upon his improbable election in 1994, South African President Nelson Mandela (played here by Morgan Freeman in the performance we’ve all been waiting on for years) took a big political gamble on his nation’s rugby team. Seen by most as a shining symbol of racist intolerance and hooliganism, the infamous Springboks were nearly abolished by the Rainbow Nation, until Mandela stepped in.
“Win,” he told them.
See, the Springboks were beloved by South Africa’s white minority Afrikaner population. Mandela knew his country was hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and savvily understood that perhaps the easiest way to begin uniting this deeply fractured country was by rallying them all around one team. Invictus is wise about a lot of things, but the movie might be smartest about all the ways that sports foster a sense of community, bringing together wildly disparate groups in pursuit of a common purpose.
Freeman’s Mandela isn’t quite the deity you’d expect from his regular sage-like, voice-of-God roles. He’s looser and cagier, the way he tends to be only in Eastwood pictures. (These two seem to understand each other so well, how can this only be their third collaboration?) A sly, old dog and a bit of a hound whenever he’s let out on the prowl, this is hardly the portrait of a plaster saint we were all expecting. Freeman plays Mandela as smarter than everybody else simply by virtue of the fact that he works harder than everybody else. He’s deeply flawed, single-minded when it comes to his job, and has a way with one-liners. In short, he’s an Eastwood hero.
A freakishly buffed-up Matt Damon co-stars as Springboks captain Francois Pienaar. Honestly, he doesn’t get much in the way of character development or background information, but Damon makes a middling role fascinating all the same. Watch as he settles into his newfound sense of responsibility almost silently, slowly but surely assuming leadership and commanding more and more of Eastwood’s carefully composed frames. It makes perfect sense to me that these two stealthy, unassuming artists have already begun shooting another picture together. Eastwood and Damon are both so naturally reticent and quietly effective; it was only a matter of time.
Invictus has problems. Anthony Peckham’s screenplay is too on-the-nose, often summing up in words what we’re already seeing visually. Also, Clint can’t shoot sports. The best of the rugby scenes are quietly undercut, final scores delivered in furtive notes when Mandela’s stuck in political conferences, or even better when not addressed at all. By the time the movie builds up to the big game, it’s not only beside the point, but the director’s reliance on corny post-production slow-motion effects almost kills it. Eastwood has such a sparse style, he tends to get mucked up whenever he has to deal with more than two people in a room, and Invictus is no exception.
As for topical relevance, I’m not going to even speculate as to why Clint Eastwood chose to make a movie right now about a newly elected, scarily calm and articulate, politically savvy black president struggling during his first term to unite a viciously divided nation. I’m just saying it’s out there. ■