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Invictus Invokes No Passion

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2009 11 Dec
<i>Invictus</i> Invokes No Passion

DVD Release Date:  May 18, 2010 
Theatrical Release Date:  December 11, 2009
Rating:  PG-13 (for brief strong language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  134 min.
Director:  Clint Eastwood
Actors:  Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Patrick Lyster, Penny Downie

Director Clint Eastwood is in the midst of a late-career surge, a darling of critics, the public and his industry colleagues. Films he's directed this past decade (Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling) have won or been nominated for multiple Oscars.

Morgan Freeman is an actor who's given one heartfelt performance after another over three decades—Unforgiven, Glory, The Shawshank Redemption, and his Oscar-winning turn in Million Dollar Baby, among others.

Invictus, directed by Eastwood and starring Freeman as Nelson Mandela, is the story of South Africa's political transformation in the late twentieth century and the role its rugby team played in bridging the racial divide in that country.

How could it go wrong? By spreading its focus too thin, running far too long and not generating the requisite momentum for a triumphant story about cultural and ethnic identity. Invictus can't figure out if it wants to be a socially conscious political story for our times, an inspirational sports drama, or a tale of racial conflict among a particular group of countrymen, so it lumps all three story threads into one narrative. The result is stultifying when it should be exhilarating—a missed opportunity for all involved.

Invictus begins with Nelson Mandela's release from jail and with South Africa on the verge of civil war. Mandela is elected president once blacks get the right to vote, but his triumph is greeted by skepticism. One newspaper headline reads, "He can win an election, but can he lead a country?" Rather than react in anger, Mandela describes the headline as "a legitimate question."

Noticing empty offices and palpable worry among white government workers in the wake of his electoral triumph, Mandela tells them to "have no fear" that their skin color will keep them from working in his administration. "We look to the future now," he says. "We want your help. … All I ask is that you do your work to the best of your abilities."

The thing that can most quickly unify the divided nation, Mandela concludes, is its rugby team, the Springboks. Though loathed by South Africa's blacks, the team has the potential to garner massive positive exposure for South Africa and its new leadership during the upcoming World Cup. The deeper the team goes in the Cup, the more publicity it will bring to Mandela's government—and to the end of apartheid.

Though underdogs, the Springboks have a strong team leader, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). Mandela takes Francois under his wing, imparting lessons about inspiration garnered during Mandela's many years of imprisonment, showing how he was forced to find inner strength to overcome his bleak outward circumstances.

"In order to build our nation, we must all exceed our own expectations," Mandela tells Francois, who interprets the statement as reflective of Mandela's hope that the Springboks will win the World Cup.

Rather than develop Francois' character, or the relationship between Francois and Mandela, Invictus shifts its focus to the stifled hostilities between the blacks and whites in Mandela's security detail and to Mandela's interaction with his other staffers. Choice lines of dialogue are sprinkled throughout these interactions, but the film never gives a strong reason for why the Springboks were so inspired to turn themselves around.

The story's conclusion—the World Cup final—is a long time coming, and when it arrives, it's a letdown. The rugby scenes don't clearly build on one another. It's hard to figure out who's winning, who's advancing and which team needs to do what next.  "This is it! This is our destiny!" Damon says to rally his team, but the sense of urgency is far from palpable and the match's ending anticlimactic. The film so struggles for excitement during its latter stretch that it resorts to an absurd, out-of-nowhere scene of an airplane heading straight for the stadium—is it going to plunge into the stands and kill thousands of people?—and then drops that situation as quickly as the film introduces it.

What was Eastwood thinking? Even if such an incident actually occurred during the Cup final that year, it is so tonally inconsistent with every other moment of this overlong, strenuously polite film, that it should have been left out of the big-screen retelling of the match.

It's the worst moment in this underwhelming project. Invictus should have been better. Much better.

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  • Language/Profanity:  Racial epithets, s-it.
  • Smoking/Drinking/Drugs:  Francois toasts "the taste of defeat" as they drink beer; more drinking.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Kissing; a man and woman in a hotel room kiss and fall out of frame, toward the bed.
  • Violence/Crime:  Footage of racial violence; rugby hits; an airliner flies very close to a stadium filled with people.
  • Marriage/Family:  Mandela dances with a woman and compares her to his wife.
  • Religion:  Mandela says, "Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon"; the South African anthem is said to mean "God bless South Africa," and Francois says they could use such a blessing; title poem reads, "I thank whatever gods may be. … I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul"; the team prays after its finals match concludes.