Invictus is a project Morgan Freeman has been trying to get off the ground for more than a decade. Although I think it’s a quality film, and the story is definitely worth telling, I can certainly see why it took this long for the film to get made. It feels at least one more rewrite away (the script was adapted from John Carlin‘s book by Anthony Peckham) from cashing in on its full potential.
Invictus centers around an event, the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The focus is split between that of the newly elected President Nelson Mandela (Freeman) and the captain (Matt Damon) of the South African Rugby team, the Springbok.
The film certainly captures the importance of the event and what it meant to a new South Africa coming out of the days of apartheid. It also succeeds in demonstrating the change in attitude of the South African people to the team, and effectively spotlights how sports can truly unify people in a very unique way.
All that said, I would have preferred if director Clint Eastwood had concentrated on the either of the two men, Mandela and Francois Pienaar, or the relationship between them, rather than the event itself. There is much about Mandela’s plans and his obsession with this match, or Pienaar and his team’s struggle to achieve their goal, that could have been used to craft the heart of a more character-driven tale.
Instead the film tries to give us small pieces of each men without truly painting a picture of either. We don’t really get to know Mandela or Pienaar, and in the short time they appear on screen together we get only a cursory glance at their relationship. There’s more than enough here for several movies, but what Eastwood chooses is to hit the big scenes which sadly leave us a scarcity of the smaller (and much more personal) moments which would have been the backbone of a stronger film.
It’s obvious Pienaar respects Mandela. In one of the most memorable scenes the Rugby team takes a trip to the jail which housed the President. Damon’s character remarks, “I was thinking how a man could spend thirty years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him.” It’s a strong moment, but not one that is built upon. Pienaar never thinks or acts on this ephiphany, his life isn’t changed in any way, nor does the event shed any more light on the film’s depiction of Mandela or the motivations behind his actions.
And as quickly as a moment like this appears it is swept aside to return to the sports story it so desperately wants to tell. Those who enjoy, or know more about, Rugby than I, might enjoy the movie more. Almost all of the final half-hour of 135-minute running time is devoted to the World Cup Final.
As a sports movie the film also struggles. Even with so much of the film devoted to the actual match, for someone who doesn’t follow the sport, the action on screen was hard to follow. I saw the events on the field cut together and changes on the scoreboard, but there was no reference provided of how the game was played or how these small moments fit together.
So what should have been dramatic, dragged, and what should have been a fascinating piece of history, wasn’t given its due. The players run, hit, huddle, and kick. The score changes (or doesn’t). Repeat. I certainly don’t fault Eastwood for choosing not to talk down to the audience or hand-hold them through these events, but surely a middle ground might have been reached.
With all these quibbles you might get the feeling I disliked the film. That’s far from the truth. My concern isn’t that the film is bad, but that it wastes the opportunity to be so much more than just a sports movie that takes place with the backdrop of South African politics.
Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon are, well, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Both give strong performances worthy of recognition, though both have been better in other films.
And Eastwood does supply some tense moments throughout the film. Though it further split the films focus, taken alone, I especially enjoyed those scenes dealing with the protection of the new President by his staff of guards learning to work together.
Invictus is a quality film. It’s not really a must-see, nor do I feel it lives up to its potential. If you like underdog sports stories with strong dramatic overtones (Cinderella Man, We Are Marshall, Rudy) you might give it a try, but if you are mainly interested in who these people were, how they accomplished what they did, and how those accomplishments changed the face of their country, then you might want to pick up a book instead.