The indefatigable Clint Eastwood has made the best movie of the year ... the best movie, that is, about rugby. Invictus is very solid, very earnest, and very, very earthbound, falling short of the emotional heights to which it aspires.
Undoubtedly, the true story of Nelson Mandela is inspiring. His desire to showcase the sport of rugby as a means to help unite 40 million South Africans, or at least to contribute to the healing process after decades of division based on racial and cultural lines, is admirable and heartwarming. It demonstrates his deep understanding of the human condition and his recognition of the importance of team sports in the lives of ordinary people.
Morgan Freeman is splendid as Mandela, embodying the undying fire and humble demeanor of a man who lost more than a quarter century of his life to unjust imprisonment. Matt Damon is effective as Francois Pienaar, a man who prefers to lead the Springboks, the all-white (save one) South African national rugby team, by his example rather than his words. And Clint Eastwood directs with his usual restrained precision, which is the film's greatest strength and its most glaring weakness.
Over his long career as a director, Eastwood has developed an outwardly informal style of filmmaking. The settings and backgrounds are sharply defined; actors, both in lead and supporting roles, are given room to define their characters; the pace is languid and measured, never in much of a hurry to get to the end.
Within that established framework, he relies upon the script to tell the story and the performers to make it convincing. His films don't dazzle with visual fireworks or elicit emotions through powerful musical scores or excite with expressive editing. He's not adverse to salting his pictures with tiny moments of unexpected humor or poignancy, but those are grace notes. He's sufficiently confident to say, in effect: 'Here is the movie, take it or leave it on its own merits, I don't want to influence you one way or the other.'
And when all the elements come together, as with Unforgiven or The Outlaw Josey Wales, or when most of the elements come together, as with Million Dollar Baby or Pale Rider, or when one great performance enlivens an otherwise routine story, as with Gran Torino or The Gauntlet or Breezy, the results can be spellbinding. (That's a great body of work right there.) When the picture is intended as lighter entertainment, as with Space Cowboys or The Rookie or Bronco Billy or The Eiger Sanction, the results are usually better than expected. When the script isn't quite up to snuff, as with Blood Work, True Crime, or Absolute Power, there are still some rewarding moments to be found. When hysterical over-acting undercuts the proceedings, as with Changeling or Mystic River, the ambition can still be admired.
Invictus has some elements that work very well: the aforementioned performance by Freeman being a major asset, along with an apparently expert recreation of South Africa in 1995 during the period immediately after Mandela was elected President. Even Freeman's sincere performance, however, runs into a major roadblock that the script is not able to overcome, namely: How do you fairly portray President Mandela as anything less than a saint who gave hope to millions of people?
Everything that Mandela says in the movie sounds too carefully scripted, as though each and every word is invested with deep meaning. Even his small talk is viewed as inspirational; after a brief chat over tea, for example, Pienaar (Damon) deduces with surprising hindsight that Mandela wants his team to win the world cup, even though he never mentioned such a thing!
Perhaps this is truly how Mandela spoke and conducted himself while in office, unwavering in his positive spirit whether in public or private. As the main character in Invictus, however, he comes across as an icon rather than an individual. It makes the movie feel like a stiff-legged living monument, a breathing history lesson as opposed to a vibrant restaging of dramatic events.
Damon, too, may well reflect the real-life Pienaar, in his soft-spoken determination to improve himself and to spark his teammates to victory. With his well-developed barrel chest and deliberate gestures, Damon looks and moves differently than the action heroes and smooth operators he's played in the past (and notably different than the would-be spy he essayed in The Informant!); his character is defined almost entirely by his restraint, which makes his occasional outward displays of emotion all the more revealing.
Restraint is practically the rallying cry for the movie as a whole. While restraint and self-control may be admirable personal qualities, though, they make for dispassionate bedfellows in a moving picture.
It doesn't help that the rules of the sport of rugby are not commonly known; they are not explained in the film, so the viewer is left to puzzle over the spectacle of a group of grimacing opposing players locked at the head and shoulders, shoving one way and another, while the ball innocently rolls free on the ground, evidently waiting for a sharp-eyed player to pick it up and kick it through the goal posts to score points. Despite all the shots of flag waving, cheering fans, the extended game footage drags down the film's momentum at a time when it needs to intensify, or even, dare I say, pick up the pace.
Even with all these caveats, there is much that is worthwhile about Invictus. The most indelible moments happen off the field and away from the speechifying and, mostly, without words. Among them: a white woman's surprise that a free sports jersey would be turned down; an angry, raucous meeting of the National Sports Council; Francois Pienaar seeing Mandela's prison cell for himself; the look on a housekeeper's face when she gets a ticket to a big game; a young black boy hanging around two scowling white cops so he can listen to a radio broadcast.
Those small moments (and others) illuminate the devastation wrought by institutional racism, and the huge challenge in repairing the damage that was caused, far more than words can say. Invictus may not live up to the (perhaps unfairly high) expectations raised by the talent involved, yet it still delivers a potent, sadly relevant message ... 14 long years after the event depicted took place.