Invictus aims for greatness, and achieves laudable mediocrity. A competent and finely crafted look at a crucial moment in South African history, it’s well directed and well acted, and features a number of thought-provoking parallels to the current climate in the United States. Yet, despite featuring an uplifting message about inspiration and perseverance, the film still fails to resonate on an emotional level due to the fact that the conflict is mainly encapsulated in a rugby game rather than out on the streets, where we could really see - and feel - the effects of Nelson Mandela’s efforts to unify the people of South Africa. Sure, there are a few scenes that illustrate the social transformation that’s taking place, such as the little black boy listening to the decisive rugby game with a pair of white police officers, or Mandela’s racially integrated security team bonding during a pickup game after overcoming some initial distrust. But by shifting the focus from Mandela’s struggle to South Africa’s efforts to win the World Cup in the second half of the film, Anthony Peckham’s screenplay essentially becomes a sports underdog story wrapped in a socially conscious coating, and loses any real dramatic tension in the process.
The film opens in 1990, just as Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is being released from prison after serving a 27-year sentence. Four years later, Mandela has been elected president of South Africa. Taking note of the racial divide that still runs through his country, Mandela urges his people to look to the future instead of remaining stuck in the past, and begins to see the Springbok -- South Africa’s mostly white rugby team -- as a powerful means of promoting his agenda for social change. The black South Africans see the Springbok as a distasteful reminder of the apartheid era, and they make this known by cheering on the challengers rather than their home team; the white South Africans remain staunch supporters of the Springbok. Lately, the Springbok hasn’t been doing so well, though Mandela is convinced they have what it takes to win the World Cup -- and bring the country together in the process. In forging a friendly relationship with Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), Mandela attempts to inspire the team to greatness, and show his people the importance of working together toward a common goal.
The concept of using sports as a vehicle for social commentary is nothing new in cinema, and Clint Eastwood’s assured, workmanlike approach yields a film that’s rarely dull, despite the fact that it’s not very exciting. But Invictus is more ambitious than your typical sports drama, and that’s both a blessing and a curse -- especially considering what was at stake at the time the actual events took place. At a crucial moment in history, Mandela recognized that some of his most important decisions were the ones that didn’t necessarily have to do with politics. His keen understanding of the role that sports play in South Africa’s national identity inspired him to gently push others to greatness, even when his own staff balked at the idea of placing such importance on something so seemingly trivial.
Of course, that message would still have come through no matter who was playing Mandela, but Freeman’s portrayal of the beloved leader is the driving force of a film that inefficiently wavers between social drama and sports drama, to the detriment of both. And while Damon’s role as team captain Pienaar certainly isn’t his most charismatic or emotionally resonate one to date, he is highly effective both on and off the rugby pitch; his few moments of quiet reflection carry a gravity that speaks volumes about his understanding of what’s really at stake in the final game. If only Peckham’s script were as focused as Freeman’s and Damon’s performances, then perhaps Eastwood might have scored a solid dramatic try. Unfortunately, despite everyone’s good intentions, Invictus fumbles the ball on its way to the goal, and never quite manages to recover it.
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