If you had told me that of the two sport movies I would see this winter, the one starring Sandra Bullock would be the better of the two, I would have said you were crazy. I would have been wrong.
Clint Eastwood’s Invictus tells the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, specifically how the South African national team rallied against incredible odds and captured the spirit and attention of a nation stumbling towards a desegregated future. Morgan Freeman plays the legendary Nelson Mandela, the newly elected president of South Africa, and Matt Damon plays team captain Francois Pienaar.
When the film is a character study of and between these two men, it’s fairly enjoyable cinema. Freeman and Damon are two wonderfully talented actors; but those early, enjoyable moments fade fast. The political and social themes take a backseat to a clichéd root-for-the-underdog gridiron hero story. I’m still not sure if this was a conscious choice on Eastwood’s part or simply a lack of factual material. Mandela’s transition in this film is presented as fairly uneventful. The Springboks, while almost universally snubbed by the black community, are a successfully integrated team. So, apart from the rugby matches, there really is no conflict. Sure, Mandela’s staff may doubt the validity of his gamble, propping up the ‘Boks as national symbols, but even if you don’t know anything about rugby before you get in the theater, you know Mandela had a long tenure as president.
As for the rugby scenes themselves, they are the best evidence that, were you to remove the credits, Invictus would be obvious as a film made by an old person. There are few games as rough and tumble as rugby, and the matches in this film are shot with such passivity. This is a game of bone-crunching hits and grappling scrums. The best Eastwood can do is lazily use slo-mo at the most crucial moments, to laughable effect.
What could have been a probing examination of the relationship between politics and culture, and their symbiotic relationship, is instead a predictable after-school special. This was clearly a fun exercise for buddies Eastwood and Freeman, and I can hardly blame Damon for signing up to work with these two titans. I just expected more from them.