I couldn’t help but feel slightly under whelmed by Invictus the first time I saw it. I’m a huge Clint Eastwood fan and I have enjoyed virtually all of his work he has done since the millennium. I’m also a big Morgan Freeman fan so when I heard he would be playing Nelson Mandela, I couldn’t help but be excited and surely it would be a clean sweep come the Oscars. I think I was expecting more of a biopic of Mandela rather than this snippet of a very specific time in the life of the great man.
The film follows Mandela’s release from prison and the country beginning very gradually to mend itself after the abolishment of apartheid. Mandela is the newly elected president of South Africa and he is eager to find a way to bring the people together, who are still very much reveling in a divide between the whites and blacks. It soon becomes apparent that the nation’s love for sport can be a step in the right direction and he becomes very hands on with the Springbooks, the country’s almost all white rugby team. He hopes to have the team win the world cup but it’s a rocky road ahead as the team itself has become a symbolism of apartheid and also, well, they are a bit rubbish.
Now I’m not a huge fan of sports, never mind sports movies, and I have to say that beyond boxing there isn’t really a sport that has transferred very well to the big screen. Which is one of the problems I have with this film, Eastwood shoots the sequences on the rugby pitch well and brutally but I don’t really know what’s going on. So with that, a lot of the tension is a little undermined. Especially since the outcome is already known (hell, you can tell the outcome by looking at the cover of the DVD).
Casting that issue aside however there is still a lot to enjoy here and the film deals with the bigger issues of the country at unease with itself. Eastwood conveys this well with a number of bit roles that convey the nations thoughts at the time. Like the black maid of a white family and Mandela’s bodyguards, a mix of black and white – these supporting roles give depth and texture to the central story and it’s a nice addition to the film. The bodyguards also add a lot of the humour to the film which is also very welcome. However, ultimately Eastwood is rather laborious with what is added to the film, at running over two hours the film can become a bit of a slog. It is especially slow within the first hour as it’s a lot of talk and nothing much happening. The film would really have benefited from a few more cuts but I think at this point in Eastwood’s career, no one makes that decision but him.
Now on to the performances of our two leads: Freeman is without doubt ideal casting and he gives the characterization of the great man the grace and quiet dignity you would expect of him. I’m always very defensive of Freeman when people say he plays the same part all the time, I think here he really shows his range here as this is much more than just an imitation of Mandela. He transforms himself into the man both physically and vocally and he makes it look easy, that’s what makes a great performer – when it doesn’t look like they are acting. Matt Damon is all beefed up for the role of the captain of the rugby team, Francois Pienaar, it’s a suitably restrained role. It could easily have turned into a showboating role in the wrong hands, all motivational speeches and ‘look at me I’m doing a South Africaan accent’ but Damon gives the performance a steely quite determination. I’m very glad he was Oscar nominated for the role because it is one of his best performances.
Eastwood has taken on some challenging subject matters in his twilight years but here it’s a rather play it safe movie for him. It’s not a bad movie at all but its perhaps more of a Sunday afternoon film than any of his other films. Well, Space Cowboys is an exception but why you would want to watch that any afternoon would be beyond me. Eastwood struggles a bit with trying to keep the film interesting, two moments in the film he tries to attempt a thriller vibe (early on a speeding car could be an assassination attempt, same with an aeroplane at the big game) but these are very misjudged on his behalf. As if Eastwood himself thinks that the film isn’t interesting enough to keep the audience’s attention. Where he does much better is when he puts these Hollywood bad habits aside and focus on the humanity of the two main characters. The scene where Pienaar visit’s the actual jail cell where Mandela spent 27 years of his life is one of the most profoundly moving things Eastwood has filmed. Instead of using a fake cell that they built for the scene, Eastwood insisted on using the actual tiny cell on Robben Island. As Pienaar looks around at the surroundings, in a voice over Freeman quietly recites the poem that kept Mandela going. As he envisions the president chipping away at rocks, instantly on Damon’s face is an understanding that this challenge that has been set for him is a much more complex and historically important task than he initially understood it to be. It truly is a devastating sequence and whilst the film does not always add up to more than a sum of its parts, it should be credited for bringing to the screen an important part of history.
With two outstanding performances and steady if nothing amazing work from Eastwood it’s a good film worth seeing at least once. With so many masterpieces in the great man’s career however, this is likely to be one that will be sidelined and perhaps sadly forgotten, despite it’s worthiness.