InvictusMJV already gave Invictus a mini-review in his Best of 2009/Pre Academy Awards Analysis, but having just watched I thought I’d give the movie a full treatment.  While Invictus doesn’t quite live up to the heights to which it aspires, it contains some genuinely inspired performances and a storyline that ranks among the best of what the greatest sports movies have to offer.  It is an engaging, if sometimes muddled, tale of a scrappy underdog rugby team pulling together to win the highest prize the sport has to offer:  the World Cup trophy.  Directed by the great Clint Eastwood, one of Hollywood’s most storied personalities, the film is as much about Rugby as it is about prejudice, hatred, and the healing of a nation–a task that few directors would be willing to tackle, and despite the movie’s flaws, Eastwood is to be commended for embarking on a project with such a massive, yet still deeply intimate, scope.

Immediately following his election as president of South Africa, Mandela, impeccably played by Morgan Freeman, one of the greatest actors of this or any generation, seeks out a way to unite the country in a way that has never been done before.  While apartheid has officially been abolished, his country still carries the deep scars that decades of government-sanctioned segregation have wreaked on the populace.  Knowing that legal changes cannot alter hearts and minds, Mandela engages in a political calculation of deeply human proportion:  he entreats François Pienaar (a muscled-up, heavily accented Matt Damon ), captain of the Springboks, the South African rugby team, to do nothing less than win the world cup.  What follows is predictable but engaging nonetheless:  The Springboks and their captain rise to the challenge, bond over tough training regimens and shared victories, face a series of ever-more-difficult rugby teams until finally reaching the championship match against the New Zealand Allblacks.  If you can guess the outcome, I’ll give you a hot cup of jack squat for predicting the most obvious of sports movie endings.

Invictus Rugby Francois Pienaar

"Soccer is gentleman's game played by hooligans. Rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen."

But Invictus, despite being entirely about a rugby team, isn’t really a movie about sports.  Eastwood instead wisely keeps the focus on Mandela and the political ramifications of his election and the cabinet-level implications of his personal interest in the tournament. He also includes several scenes that could have easily ended up in a DVD “Extras” menu, such as Mandela’s security guards discussing protective procedures and rules of engagement.  A bold move to be sure, as the movie does tend to drag on and even lose focus from time to time.  But Eastwood isn’t catering to a Michael Bay audience here.  He knows that the social ramifications of Mandela’s election, which affect every individual in South Africa even up to staff of the president, are the true soul of Invictus.  One of the most poignant scenes, which certainly would have been shed were the film in the hands of a lesser director, takes place not on the rugby field or presidential office, but inside Mandela’s actual cell when Pienaar and his team tour the prison.  And by adding these layers to the movie, Eastwood creates a tapestry that is far richer than just a story about a rugby team.

That Morgan Freeman did not win Best Actor at the Academy Awards is probably a tragedy, though having not seen Crazy Heart I can’t make that claim with all certainty. But his performance as Nelson Mandela was absolutely stunning.  The way he inhabited every bit of Mandela’s character was mesmerizing:  his gait, his speech and vocal patterns, his interactions with friends and colleagues…it is the stuff of acting legend.  Stanislavski himself would be hard pressed to find a greater master of method acting.

As a certified octogenarian, Clint Eastwood has officially retired from acting in order to focus on contributing as much as he can to the world through his directoral skills for as long as he is physically able.  I have no doubt he was keenly aware that the inconsistent pacing and occasional meandering would keep Invictus from achieving greatness.  But the result is a film that, while not as commercially viable as some other sports films, does an excellent job of showing what it takes to shed the chains of hatred and embrace a brighter, glorious future.


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  1. ‘Invicus’ is good, but also a very safe movie at the same time. I can appreciate Eastwood’s touches, and also Morgan Freeman’s work as Mandela, but something about Freeman strikes me as though this was a role that suited him so perfectly that there’s little surprise in the performance. That may not be a criticism in its own right, but it does fuel my point that “Invictus” colors completely inside the lines, and that keeps it from being an extraordinary and moving film instead of just a satisfactory one.

  2. Interesting point. Invictus tells a compelling story, but it’s pretty obvious from the very beginning just how it will all play out. I see what you mean about “coloring inside the lines.” If anything I think Invictus suffers from trying to do too many things, and thus losing focus. Between Mandela’s personal life and political problems, to apartheid in his country, to an underdog rugby team, we see the surface of so many things but don’t really dig deep into any one of them. It really should be two separate movies: one about Francois and the rugby team, and one about Mandela.

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