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Invictus (2009) Print E-mail
Friday, 11 December 2009
ImageSometimes you know when you're seeing history unfold before your eyes. Even though I was very young, I can still remember seeing the fall of the Berlin Wall, and of course 9/11 and Barack Obama winning the presidency of the United States. But before Obama, there was Nelson Mandela. A civil rights activist in South Africa who was jailed for subversive activities by the Apartheid National Government, Mandela was later freed from imprisonment and managed to become the president of South Africa once all races were allowed to vote equally. Mandela is considered one of the elder statesman of human rights causes, and his name is often uttered in the same breath as Mahatma Gandhi.

Invictus is about Nelson Mandela. But it's not about his early life as an activist, or his time in prison, or even his campaign to get elected. No, the movie opens inauspiciously with Mandela's release from prison. It then intercuts real news footage of the election with inserted footage of Morgan Freeman as Mandela. It then details his first few weeks as president, finally culminating in his idea to use the country's rugby team, the Springboks, as a symbol of cultural and racial unity. In this he enlists the help of the team captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon).

Invictus is a strange hybrid of biopic, true story, and sports film. The main focus is on Mandela, until it shifts to the rugby team. Then it seems to want to be your typical inspirational sports story, but it can't quite break away from Mandela. Director Clint Eastwood, who has handled true story films before, tends to let events play out without beating down the audience with messages. We know the importance of Mandela, and the importance of the Springbok's taking the World Cup, and Eastwood doesn't linger on it. But, at the same time, his directing style can almost be described as hands-off. He never quite seems to get under Mandela's skin, and none of the other characters are nearly so fleshed out.

He spends even less time on the rugby. Given how important those games were, you'd think we'd see a little more of it. Also, given that this movie will play all around America, you'd think Eastwood would at least partially explain how rugby is played, because I watched the whole thing and it's still a confusing mess of a sport to me. Each game plays out like a highlight reel, and you never really get to know the players (aside from Damon) well enough to feel concerned over their well being or even how they're doing in the game.

However, proving that Eastwood is ever an actor's director, both of the leads are excellent. I'm amazed it took this long for someone to cast Morgan Freeman as Mandela. The choice is obvious, but no less enjoyable in its straightforwardness (although why Eastwood chose to have Freeman read the title poem without an accent I do not know). Freeman gives a sense of the gravitas and personal integrity that Mandela possesses. Damon is given less to do as Pienaar, but he does his best to strain against the racial prejudices of the people around him. Perhaps his best moments are earlier on, when he's first invited to meet the president and in doing so, learns to change his way of thinking.

Invictus is neither a terrible film nor a great one. Eastwood is one of those directors whose work never falls off the deep end of the creative spectrum, so his movies are usually a safe bet. This one feels like a more minor entry in his catalog, but perhaps that's because we know the rest of the story is more interesting than what we're seeing.

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