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Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Invictus, is the true story of South African president Nelson Mandela and his attempts to unify his country during a period of extreme division. It is also a cliched sports movie wherein we watch an underdog rugby team overcome the odds to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. On paper this sounds like two separate movies, ones from different genres that you would never associate with each other. And this is what makes Invictus so unique. Rugby is as much of a device to tell Mandela’s story as Mandela is a device to tell the story of the World Cup.
Morgan Freeman is perfectly cast as Mandela, not only perfectly mimicking his look and mannerisms, but capturing the essence of who he is. It’s a subtle performance, and after awhile I completely forgot I was watching Freeman in the role. He disappears into the role as Mandela takes power after decades in prison, realizing that he must unite his country. Apartheid has torn South Africa apart, and the country is in need of a unifying element. Turning toward South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks, Mandela sees the potential in this team to bring his country together as everybody roots for a common goal.
As an audience, we are simultaneously rooting for the Springboks to win the Cup because of what it would mean for the country and Mandela, but also because we want to see the underdogs win. There is a throwaway line in the film in which we learn that the Springboks were representative of white South Africa, and as such, Mandela used to root for whichever team was playing against them. He does everything in his power through the course of the film to make them representative of all of Africa.
I don’t know how accurate the story is, but based on this movie, it would seem that South Africa was united by rugby. There are some not-so-subtle moments in which we see people in conflict finally united after the team’s victory, but this is the essence of the film. As we see Mandela thank the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), for what he has done for the country and Pienaar in turn thanks him for the same, we realize just how intensely Eastwood has linked the outcome of this game with the future of the entire country.
But there are long stretches where the politics take a backseat to the standard sports story. We’ve seen the sports aspect of the film a hundred times, but it’s refreshing to see it told with rugby, a game most Americans aren’t that familiar with. Damon is very convincing as the captain, and even though I’ve never seen rugby played, I completely believed him in the sequences on the field. I don’t know whether this is a testament to Damon’s performance, Eastwood’s directing or both.
As a whole, the film is kind of slow and could be considered boring to some. But there are enough standout moments scattered throughout that I found myself enjoying the movie. I particularly liked a sequence where the team tours the prison Mandela was held for so many years. This moment more than any other provided a link between the alternating focuses of the film. It’s a strong sequence, expertly acted and directed.
Despite moments such as that sequence, this is not Eastwood’s strongest work. It all feels very capable, but there is very little that is extraordinary about it. I know that he isn’t trying to be flashy, but it still feels rather pedestrian overall. However, Warner Bros. put together a decent set for the recently released Blu-Ray. There are several features, including one detailing a meeting between Freeman and Mandela as Freeman was preparing for the role. There is also a feature called “Matt Damon plays rugby.” As promised, this is a feature running about seven minutes of Matt Damon playing rugby. Rounding out the features are a documentary on Eastwood by “film critic and documentarian Richard Schickel,” and the Invictus music trailer.
However, the best extra for the film is available only on the Blu-Ray. This is a picture-in-picture commentary running throughout the film featuring Clint Eastwood. What makes this particularly compelling is the inclusion of some of the real people involved in the story. It’s fascinating to see their insights and to get different perspectives on the film.
Overall, I found Invictus to be a solid movie. However, I appreciate it more than I actually like it. More interesting than entertaining, this is a very slow-paced story, one that overcomes the occasional cliches and manipulations of your average sports movie by having something more substantial at stake than simply winning the big game. But at the end of the day, I was still left with a been-there, done-that vibe. I definitely recommend the movie for the performances and occasional standout moment, but don’t expect anything you haven’t seen before.