Nelson Mandela, one of the most recognized and respected politicians in the world, is brought to life in Invictus, the latest drama from Clint Eastwood. Aside from the lackluster Changeling, Eastwood has been on a tear, producing one Oscar-nominated drama after the next. Invictus is his latest shot at gold, and while it is definitely a compelling story, it never quite clicks.
In Invictus - not the title I would have chosen, by the way - Morgan Freeman stars as Mandela during his first days as president of South Africa. Well aware of the strife between whites and blacks, having lived in prison for several decades because of his anti-apartheid views and actions, he realizes that to govern the nation he has to appease the whites he grew up hating. It's a monumental task, as the easiest solution - and the most popular among the black majority - would be to get rid of all things that even remind them of apartheid, but Mandela realizes that by doing so it would alienate the whites, who also control the military. So, he does what any newly elected president would do: he requests the help of the captain of the hated South African rugby team Springbox, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) and essentially asks him to win the World Cup in hopes that it will unite the country. With the odds stacked against them, Pienaar and the Springbox, who wear the colors of apartheid and have only one black man among them, set out to do just that.
Freeman and Damon both turn in fine performances, immersing themselves in their characters with every ounce of effort. Freeman transforms himself into Mandela, capturing his expressions, voice and mannerisms with acute precision. Damon does the same for Pienaar, though I can't exactly say I know what Pienaar sounds or acts like. Both men are terrific in their respective roles, but before we start screaming "Oscar!", let's put things in perspective: as good as they are, neither performance is so emotionally overpowering to be memorable. Freeman's performance is an excellent impersonation of Mandela, and it is more than that, but ten years later - or even one year later - will we be talking about his amazing performance in Invictus? No. As for Damon, his character is surprisingly underdeveloped; we get to see his actions but not his underlying motivations, other than what's outlined on screen.
That sums up the entirety Invictus pretty well, too. The movie is well done; Eastwood has made a film with impressive detail, summing up the emotions, setting and implications of the place and time. The writing is good, the scenes visually impressive (other than a few CGI shots at the World Cup final). All in all, Invictus is a very good movie.
But it isn't as emotionally powerful as it should and could have been; it isn't as tight and focused as some of Eastwood's other recent works; and it wastes time on certain characters while failing to develop others. Eastwood seems intent to show the progression of white and black relations through the warming interactions between Mandela's mixture of bodyguards, but otherwise their presence is unnecessary. Eastwood dwells on these characters - none of whom are particularly memorable - while failing to develop the Springbox team. None of the players are anything more than big, burly men, none except for Damon who also gets the shaft. For a movie about how rugby united South Africa in a time of need, Eastwood seems very disinterested with portraying the rugby team as anything more than superficial athletes.
The movie flows at a slow but methodical pace, but a little tightening could have gone a long way. There are a few times where the picture loses its focus - and subsequently lost my attention. More importantly, as what is ultimately a sports drama, the climax doesn't have the impact Eastwood was aiming for. It's mildly emotional and at times tense, but Eastwood struggles to blend sports action and drama in the final half hour of the film. He's not a director made to do sports movies; I've seen more exciting matches in Disney movies. His decision to use slow motion near the end is also a little painful.
The only glaring flaw of Invictus, however, is the soundtrack. Eastwood, as good of a director as he is, has proven that he doesn't have the best ear for soundtracks at times. His decision to sing at the end of Gran Torino was noticeably odd, but the song choices in Invictus - typically cheesy, message-driven ballads - are noticeably bad. A soundtrack should not distract from what's happening on the screen - instead, it should complement the scenes - and the soundtrack for Invictus is definitely distracting. At least he doesn't sing this time around.
Invictus is not a movie without its flaws, but it's still a well-made, intriguing sports drama. However, for a movie so clearly vying for Oscar glory, it falls short of the goal line.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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