I doubt that during the first meetings about making a movie revolving around Nelson Mandela taking office and looking for national pride via rugby a lot of the talk focused on the myriad ways such a film could go wrong. Those who make such movies generally cannot even fathom the idea of it going wrong. The wildly overpraised Precious is in a similar realm. “But, it’s a movie about…,” and that’s really all there is to the discussion.
Conversations about this turning into an ultimately pointless effort that had little to say other than, “Look how fabulous Nelson Mandela is… how can you argue with that?” were not the first ones various suits had. Luckily, in the case of Invictus, they were conversations someone had at some point.
The plot is decidedly simple. We follow Mandela (Morgan Freeman) through his earliest days as President, with special attention to his focus on the National Rugby team, and its captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). The special spin (which interestingly has no real U.S. equivalent), is that the nation’s racial tensions are somewhat symbolically tied to the team. As Mandela notes in an early match, the whites are cheering for their team, the blacks for the visitors.
As a point of hopeful solidarity, Mandela tries to fuel a fire in Pienaar which will lead him to inspire his team to victory at the Rugby World Cup, which South Africa is hosting. Mandela aims to fuse nation and team, standing together in markedly underdog status, with the idea that while his bid for election was a victory to some, it was a defeat to others, and what his nation needs now is a victory for all.
It’s an interesting story about a uniquely bizarre period of human history, but what saves the film from spilling into the realm of the preachy and/or treacly may be precisely what renders it ultimately unsatisfying and a tad dull. Don’t get me wrong though, the movie is a winner.
There are simply so many things to work at avoiding in this picture that by the time we manage that trick we look around and find that the major focus of the film is the saying of things such that we won’t… rather than the saying of that which will. In this case, it’s a difference the audience can feel, but it’s the sort of difference that leaves you with a four-star film instead of an attainable higher mark.
There’s a surprising amount of fun to the picture, and the thing itself manages the humble charisma of the man it relays to some degree or other. Morgan Freeman gives a solid performance, and one that is engaging and supremely watchable, even if it simply is not worth best of the year status. Noteworthy? Maybe. Win? No. The film even manages a number of scenes that are practically signed by Eastwood. Specifically, the old and new bodyguard play throughout, and the sudden rush to a speech before the committee voting to change the team’s mascot and colors.
It’s interesting. It’s worth watching. You won’t be disappointed, and in the sense of the best spin you can put on that idea. But, somehow it isn’t quite powerful, and it should be. It keeps such tight reins on itself that it can’t break free of its own restraint.
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- Invictus (cinemablend.com)
- Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus”: Can rugby heal a nation? (salon.com)
- Movie Review: Mandela, Rugby and Invictus (time.com)