There is something to be said about the unifying power of sports. Perfect strangers chant in harmony and share in the excitement of competition, celebrating each win as a team and lamenting the losses as a unit. There is nothing quite like witnessing your team claim a deserved victory after a roller coaster ride of support spanning months, years, and sometimes decades.
It is this positive energy director Clint Eastwood hoped to harness in Invictus, a story of how the newly-elected Nelson Mandela believed in the cohesive capabilities of national sport and publicly cheered for the South African Springbok’s in the Rugby World Cup, against the recommendations of his advisers.
Aside from a nuanced performance by Morgan Freeman as Mandela and the solid turn by Matt Damon as team captain Francois Pienaar, the film is a banal, often dull, re-telling of select events. Eastwood glosses over the country’s fractured history for a mawkish tale of reconciliation, allowing only glimpses of the violence, oppression, segregation, and squalor that existed off the rugby pitch. It’s as if Anthony Peckham’s screenplay sidesteps the harsh realities to depict a watered-down, feel-good version of 1995, pausing plenty to yank on emotional heartstrings but rarely to convey what made Mandela an influential, charismatic figure. He learned all the names of his staff, so he must be great!
Freeman melts into the man, his warm voice developing the accent flawlessly and his frame adopting the frail mannerisms of a man that endured 27 harsh years of prison. His portrayal is worthy of the subject and of recognition by his peers, though Freeman had little to sink his chompers into as the plot shifts aimlessly between Mandela, Pienaar, and his shamelessly symbolic bodyguards.
Seeing an opportunity to bring black and white South Africans together, Mandela visits with Pienaar, giving him encouragement, pep talks, and a poem by William Ernest Henley titled “Invictus.” The verses were a source of strength to Mandela in prison, so of course Freeman reads them aloud while Damon gazes irreverently into the distance.
Apparently all the Springboks needed was a pat on the head from their President, which gives Eastwood the chance to go through the motions, running all the right plays for a paint-by-number sports comeback. There are even multiple montages as the team turns their season around, set to one of the most distractingly poor musical scores in recent memory.
The World Cup matches are lengthy sequences of bone crunching brutality, as men — like Clint’s son Scott Eastwood — wear Polos, tackle one another, and advance the ball across the grass. Those who haven’t bothered to learn rugby will scratch their heads and miss the drama of the play-by-play in their confusion. Peckham and Eastwood couldn’t fit a short explanation of the rules in the 134-minute runtime?
Ultimately, the story is uplifting in the way that The Mighty Ducks was triumphant; an underdog team overcomes the odds and everyone learns the value of teamwork. The final match is a showdown of the well-intended longshot versus the overtly (and comically) menacing opponent, climaxing with slow motion shots of cheering crowds and pivotal plays. Dramatic speeches are made in last-minute huddles, characters that despised each other now nudge one another gleefully, players watch with mouths agape as time freezes and the ball soars, and the hero gets the heart-warming spotlight. The only thing missing was a signature move. What, the Springboks never practiced “the Flying V” formation?
The disappointing Invictus focuses too much on the predictable outcome, which overshadows the real triumph: Nelson Mandela’s rise to political power as South Africa’s first black president and the inspirational struggle to rescue his people from decades of apartheid. There is heart in this film, it’s just in the wrong place.
2.5 out of 5.