A film review by Craig J. Koban December 21, 2009


2009, PG-13, 134 mins.


Francois Matt Damon / Nelson Mandela: Morgan Freeman / Tony: Jason Tshabalala / Springbok coach: Louis Minnaar / Francois' father: Patrick Lyster / Mary: Leleti Khumalo

Directed by Clint Eastwood / Written by Anthony Peckham, based on the book by John Carlin

“I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

From INVICTUS by William Ernest Henley - 1875


Clint Eastwood’s INVICTUS is a highly atypical inspirational-sports film: It’s a work that aspires to be a soul-stirring and uplifting drama of athletic underdogs overcoming all odds to secure ultimate victory, but it also manages to look at the political and social strife that beleaguered a post-apartheid South Africa in the process.  That's a highly intriguing concoction, but some people may callously mock the naivety of INVICTUS’ central message, which is that a sport can be a singular solution to heal a country’s emotional wounds and growing pains (which I believe is one of the central dilemmas that holds the film back from greatness).  Yet, being a pound Canuck, I can attest to the fact that our unofficial national sport, hockey, is a legitimate religion to many in Canada.  In South Africa, and in many parts of the world, rugby transcends a spiritual experience for the masses. 

The film is not just ostensibly about sports; it also concerns the tumultuous early period of Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) presidency in South Africa just after he was elected in 1994.  He was freed in 1990 from Robben Island and worked tirelessly since that point to indefinitely end apartheid in his nation.  He initiated full democratic elections where the black population was allowed to vote, which was a masterstroke, but it still did very little to ease the strain of racial strife and tension in the country.  His long-term aspiration was not to enact any type of personal revenge against the tyrants that imprisoned him, but rather to unify his country by balancing black hopes with white aprehension.   

So, with this insurmountable problem on the horizon, Mandela opted to focus on what he believed would be a rallying and triumphant solution to bring the peoples of South Africa together. 

He would turn to rugby. 

His nation’s national rugby team, The Springboks, utterly divided the nation: white people cherished the team and black people admonished them, seeing them as a popular symbol of apartheid.  Mandela – who apparently despised the team and refused to support them while imprisoned – attended one of their games early in his presidency and easily noticed the racial divide in the fan base for those in attendance.  At this point Mandela came up with the ballsiest of political plans: South Africa was set to host their very first World Cup of Rugby in 1995 and he thought that if he could somehow assist the Springbok team with making it to the finals, then this would have a chance to bring both ethnic sides peacefully together for the goal of cheering their nation’s team to ultimate victory.   

Mandela knew that this would be a highly divisive and contested prospect for a new president, so he wisely knew that he would need a portal into the team, and he would find it in the form of a fateful meeting with the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon).  Even though Mandela is never explicit with his real motives to the player, Pienaar understands his end game.  This leads to Pienaar convincing his team – some with subverted racial hatred and bigotry themselves – of the importance of motivating themselves and striving to be number one.  The Springboks do manage to persevere and make it the finals against a virtually unstoppable New Zealand team, ironically named the All-Blacks (ostensibly for their jersey color), a team so powerful that they previously crushed opponents like Japan by 90 points.  Before the “big game” Mandela gives Pienaar a poem written by William Ernest Henley called "Invictus," which is Latin for “invincible”, that he carried with him while pummeling away at rocks for 24 years in prison.  With a stadium of 62,000 screaming fans, a Cinderella sports story ended under fortuitous, fairytale circumstances and a nation – albeit momentarily – appeared unified.   

Working from a book titled PLAYING THE ENEMY: NELSON MANDELA AND THE GAME THAT CHANGED A NATION, Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham manage to give a certain level of resonating credibility to a story that would feel like pure fiction if it were not reality-based.  I liked how they managed to marry a sports genre picture with political expose on a country in transition.   INVICTUS is not the Mandela biopic many have been craving for, for sure, but exploring Mandela’s life is not this film’s M.O.; instead, INVICTUS is about one politician at a crucial and difficult time in his life making gigantic gambles and leaps of faith that would make even the most liberal minded political minds cringe.  Mandela has always had an image of a wise, gentle, but confident and assured leader, but INVICTUS assertively portrays him as one with fearless nerve and bravado.  Just consider: he knew how deeply detested the Springboks were the black population, so the logical approach would be to not to show an alliance to that franchise.  Yet, Mandela courageously swatted away logic and common sense and instead decided to embrace this hated team.  His rationale was kind of ingenious: supporting and rallying behind the "symbolic" enemy of the black population would perhaps thaw the cold racial divide in the country, thus, helping him to re-establish a more progressive minded South Africa for future generations.  Bold, indeed.

Eastwood - as confidant and rock steady of a film craftsman as they come – has always been a terrific director of actors, and INVICTUS greatly benefits for two finely tuned lead performances to lead this film’s charge.  Mandela himself has always stated on record that no one else could ever play him in a movie other than Morgan Freeman, and he may be correct.  Freeman has been trying to get a Mandela film off the ground for years, and he has immersed himself in research during that time to perfect the South African leader's intonations, body posture, and easy going and calm spoken charm.  Although Freeman’s performance here leans more towards portraying Mandela more as an enigmatic and iconic figure than a flesh and blood one, he nonetheless captures the politician’s soft spoken gravitas alongside his serenely empowered visage as a brave catalyst of change.  That, and Freeman also has a subtle way of infusing in this man a steely eyed vigor and unwavering determination to see that his goals are met, even if they seen impractical.   

Damon, on the other hand, has the trickier of the performances: he plausibly has to play a 6’4” rugby titan with his far smaller frame and then he has to legitimately allow for our buy into this man – the child of racist parents – to overcome his own prejudices and use his meeting with Mandela to transform himself to a better person and leader on the field.  Watching Damon here - playing Pienaar with a cool, pokerfaced sincerity and an earnest passion - after seeing his comic tour de force performance in this year’s THE INFORMANT!, anyone doubting his depth as an actor should give their head a shake.  He plays Pienaar with a thankless grace and heartfelt dignity. 

The problem, however, with INVICTUS is not with the film’s performances or its noble minded themes, but rather that it comes off too pretentiously as a transparent bit of Oscar-bait.  Even though the film’s focus is somewhat narrowly honed in on one sports event, INVICTUS is sort of paint-by-numbers, clichéd-ridden, and hopelessly naïve at times about nudging the Rugby World Cup into the ultimate and singular force that brought a divided nation together.  The film certainly – and rightfully – embodies how sports can be a facilitator and unifier for people, but Eastwood browbeats audience members incessantly with this sentiment.  Centuries worth of racial strife could hardly be fixed overnight by the results of one sports contest, but the manner Eastwood and Peckham seem to use the "big, climatic game" as the only apparent reconciliatory factor for South Africa’s people rings kind of falsely.  The game precipitated momentary, not longstanding, change within the people, which is something I don't think the film understands.

Perhaps the most sickly sweet and head shaking example of this is when Eastwood continually cuts back from the World Cup final and to a poor, homeless, black youth that hangs around a taxi to hear the radio broadcast while the bigoted white driver frequently attempts to tell him to take a hike.  By the end of the game the two are harmoniously cheering and embracing.  Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh.  Also, the way the film manages to take Pienaar’s aggressively racist father and instantly transforms him into a considerate and socially inclusive man over the course of the game never once feels authentic.  Eastwood, usually a restrained, no-nonsense, and assuredly understated filmmaker, seems to be a bit too earnest and forceful with overplaying the film’s simplistic, inspiration quotient.  INVICTUS is about race relations, but the handling of it is done so in a sterile and woefully perfunctory manner.  Plus, his method of accenting certain scenes with “message” songs about hope, perseverance, and overcoming skin color really teeters on teeth-grating sermonizing. 

Another thing bothered me a bit about the film: this is the second sports film of the fall where black struggles are shown through the eyes of a privileged, white protagonist (as was the case with the somewhat insufferable THE BLIND SIDE, but with a higher level of ad nauseum than in INVICTUS).  Then there are other issues, like a sloppily handled subplot involving a predictable love/hate relationship between Mandela’s racially mixed security force  (this could have been excised altogether) and a genuine discarding of pertinent details of Mandela’s life.  His wife is barely reverenced in a line of throwaway line of dialogue (and speaking of which, how painful is it to hear the authoritative Morgan Freeman harnessing Mandela while uttering cookie cutter, sports clichéd lines like, “We’re so close.  Not now!”).  Clearly, after the emotionally raw and immersing period dramas like last years CHANGELING and 2003’s riveting MYSTIC RIVER, INVICTUS is chiefly not indicative of Eastwood’s finest work: It yearns to be a truly masterful and involving inspirational sports film and a compelling investigation into how rugby is uniquely married to Mandela’s socio-political ambitions, and it partially works.  The issue is that it simply tries too hard, which is unfortunately surprising coming from a less-is-more filmmaking mind.  If it did just a little less loud and ostentatious speechifying, then INVICTUS would have been another profoundly involving and moving drama that Eastwood is know for conjuring up at will.  This is a good effort, but not one that is worthy of Oscar glory or its director’s consummate resume.

  H O M E