Invictus is a tried-and-true sports film: inspiring and great to look at. But that’s all it is, which, considering the historical and political implications, is a letdown. Here we have a true story of how a leader used an athletic competition to help ease racial divides and unite a country, but the film, even at two-plus hours, feels like the Cliffs Notes version of the events. We should be leaving the theater in awe of what was accomplished, but the movie feels too by-the-books and unfortunately does not leave a lasting impression.
The year is 1990 and Nelson Mandela (Freeman) is being released from prison after serving twenty-seven years on charges of sabotage during the anti-apartheid movement. By 1994 he is South Africa’s first black President. South Africa is in a deep racial divide, with many whites opposing his election. The country faces issues involving crime, poverty, and job loss. Mandela’s strategy: unite the country through sports, in particular the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Mandela personally meets with the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar (Damon), to address the importance of winning the Cup. Considered a relatively weak team, the South Africans would make an historic run.
The scope of Invictus is a large one. There’s enough material in this two-plus hour film for three other full movies, which probably explains why every aspect of the story, save Mandela’s story, feels incomplete. Screenwriter Anthony Peckham (working from the book by John Carlin) focuses the entire first act on Mandela’s rise in popularity and strategy for uniting the country. The rugby aspect is brought in and never fully fleshed out. We barely get to know the team at all, even Francois. We know he’s good at rugby and has a girlfriend, but that’s about it. The Mandela side of the story, however, works and his actions during this time likely merit a movie of their own.
Morgan Freeman steals the movie, and rightly so. His performance as Mandela is one of the most likeable and understated in recent cinema, and you can’t help but root for the guy. He addresses everyone as if they are his superiors and truly has respect for the entire populace of South Africa. Matt Damon is efficient as Francois, a quiet man who truly cannot believe the President would see their team as a building block to South Africa’s success. Unfortunately, his character is largely underwritten and hampers his contribution to the story.
Invictus works as a stock sports inspiration story, but we expect more than that from director Clint Eastwood. He has no doubt shot a beautiful film, but we’re not left with the awe in which we should be. Eastwood clearly went into the film with grandiose expectations and knowledge of the history, not to mention some visions of Oscar glory. That makes it all the more disappointing that we’re left with what feels like a by-the-numbers sports picture.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 134 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language.
Theatrical Release: December 11, 2009
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Anthony Peckham. Based upon the book by John Carlin.
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern