The Good: Decent direction, Decent-enough acting
The Bad: Light on character development, Predictable plot
The Basics: Very average, Clint Eastwood's latest directoral effort, Invictus is a drama mixing sport and ethnic issues in the most unremarkable way.
Every year around Thanksgiving and after, we enter Oscar Pandering Season where the studios do their best to position their films so the short-term memories of the Academy voters will not be troubled to have to recall an entire year's worth of films when considering voting for the awards. The major studios and the best directors release from Thanksgiving through the end of the year so their films might have a chance at getting Best Picture and Best Director consideration (and the studios that know they don't have a chance release escapist movies designed to keep the masses happy by offering them a reasonable alternative to visiting with family during the holidays!). Among the stalwarts of Oscar Pandering Season is Clint Eastwood. In 2008, for example, he released Gran Torino around Christmas in order to try to get it considered for the Oscars and Golden Globes. In 2009, his entry was Invictus, an obvious attempt to play on Oscar voters and viewers alike.
After a preview screening of Invictus, I was entirely unsurprised by the lukewarm reception of the film to the American audience. Despite having seen the film with an ethnically (and age) diverse audience, no one left the film excited about it or seemly eager to tell their friends. That said, Invictus is based upon both a book by John Carlin and actual events in contemporary history (this movie takes us back all the way to 1995). Any problems with the history or characters are problems with the film; I have not read the book and truth-be-told, I do not recall anything about this from reality (save, of course, Nelson Mandela being released from prison and then getting elected President of South Africa).
With apartheid in South Africa crumbling and political revolution in the air, Nelson Mandela - an activist against the racial discrimination laws in South Africa - is released from prison and he returns to public life. Soon after, in the first free elections in South Africa in which blacks and other minorities have the legal right to have their vote fully counted, Mandela is elected president of South Africa. Mandela inherits a nation that is deeply divided and scarred by its history of race prejudice and his early attempts to heal those wounds through his politics are met with mixed results.
But as the 1995 Rugby World Cup approaches, Mandela realizes that the attention being paid to the South African team is having a unifying effect on the nation - white and black South African citizens alike care about the sport. While Mandela works for economic justice through the legislature, he approaches Francois Pienaar, a white man who is captain of the rugby team, and imparts upon him the importance of the South African team winning the World Cup. From that point on, Pienaar becomes obsessively devoted to driving his team toward the win, even though the smart money is on New Zealand.
Invictus is one of those films that starts off headed in one direction, then goes off in another and the two halves do not mesh nearly as well as one might hope. The bottomline is that I love politics and I loathe sports and when the film shifts into being far more about sports and Pienaar, the movie takes a turn into the tragically boring and tiresomely predictable realm. Long before Pienaar and his team go up against New Zealand, it is clear that it is That Kind Of Movie, in this case the "inspirational sports story." Unlike films about the life of Nelson Mandela, Invictus quickly gets away from the political struggle and the scenes with Pienaar training his team quickly become tiresome.
What the movie does quite well, though, is establish mood. In Family Guy, there is a joke about the level of tension when slavery was abolished in the United States and the humor of how awkward it must have been. Invictus embodies well the sense of injustice the oppressed majority (black South Africa) felt as well as the sense of sudden displacement felt by the white South Africans. Pienaar is given a difficult task; to rally a team of black players without his coaching demands seem like an ethnic issue or a continuation of generations of oppression. Pienaar works to gain the respect of his team and the way he bonds with the men in his charge sets the example Mandela desires.
Invictus is fairly predictable even for those not fluent in sports history (which I am not). Rugby doesn't matter much to me and the problem with this film is that everything goes very much by the numbers. This is predictable in the plot and character arcs (yes, Pienaar learns a little something in the process, too) and the film generally does exactly what it sets out to do without any real surprises. So, for example, director Clint Eastwood uses high-caliber actors and their performances are utterly unsurprising. Matt Damon, who plays Pienaar is able to keep his character in dialect. This might seem unremarkably until one considers the field of young actors these days, Damon seems a pretty obvious choice for a young white actor who can actually keep an accent.
Similarly, Morgan Freeman is great casting to play Mandela. Freeman has the dignity, articulation and bearing of Mandela and he is the obvious choice for the role. Predictably, he performs the role without flaw and again the viewer is left feeling more like this was to be expected than they have sat through anything new or extraordinary. Add to that, Freeman is a favorite of Clint Eastwood, who has used him in films since Unforgiven (reviewed here!). Eastwood knows how to use Freeman well, but using a great actor well is like getting good service and food at a five-star restaurant; it is expected and easy to get there.
This, ultimately, is the downfall of Invictus. The film is simple and falls within the realm of expected greatness, not actually coming into its own. Instead, it is very much an average drama and with its emphasis on a sport I don't care at all about, it is easy to forget.
For other sports movies, check out:
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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