Invictus is the first in a forthcoming crop of Oscar hopefuls to be released this month, and if you don’t believe me, it’s by Clint Eastwood, stars Morgan Freeman and is about millions of people overcoming racism. Throw in Meryl Streep and you might as well just cancel the whole awards show.
But just because pieces of a film are “Oscar caliber” does that mean that’s true for the film as a whole? I don’t believe that’s the case here.
Invictus tells the story of a recently freed Nelson Mandela taking office in his home country of South Africa after the plague of apartheid has torn his country apart. He discovers that amidst these troubling times, the sport of rugby appears to be the way to best unite his white and black citizens, and he contacts the team’s captain, Matt Damon, to help him create a club the entire country can get behind. This culminates in the very true story of South Africa’s unlikely rise to become rugby world cup champions, and there’s enough inspiration to last us all until next Oscar season.
It’s not a spoiler if it’s history.
But through all this, I maintain that just because the story is wonderful, that doesn’t automatically give the film based around it a free pass.
Invictus is bloated, poorly structured and seldom well-written. However, most of this is negated by stellar performances from both Freeman and Damon. It’s absolutely true that Morgan Freeman was born to play Nelson Mandela, and even though he sounds like a human version of Yoda who speaks in correctly formatted sentences, his performance is powerful as the iconic president. If there’s a problem with the character, it’s just that Eastwood makes him seem almost too perfect, as everything he says and does is always the “right” answer, and a few brief moments touching on his family strife don’t really humanize him enough.
Why do even the good African leaders dress like they’re going to kill my family?
Damon on the other hand isn’t required to do a whole lot here, but when he is onscreen, he masters his accent dutifully (though it’s hard for most people to judge what a “correct” South African accent sounds like) and he gives the appropriate amount of motivation to his team without trying to steal the show.
However, as I mentioned, great performances are no excuse for the film’s other failings, and I will place most of the blame on Eastwood for that. The film is nearly half an hour too long, and is padded by a badly written and acted subplot about Mandela’s newly integrated Secret Service detail. It’s meant to show brotherhood and reconciliation and all that, but a million screaming black and white people hugging each other in the final scene accomplishes that just fine. It would have been one thing if there was ever, you know, an actual security threat in the movie, but there are only a few false scares meant to make the characters seem useful.
Another avenue where the film suffers is the rugby itself, and though it’s tough to make a watchable film about a sport few of us understand, there isn’t even two minutes of general explanation as to how the game is played, so therefore all the match scenes have us wondering just what exactly is happening on the field the majority of the time. And when the movie drags the final match out to an exhausting twenty five minutes of men grunting and shoving each other, I literally felt the need to tap out. These sequences make the film feel like this might as well be a movie about how the Mighty Ducks brought down the Berlin wall, only it’s a sport we don’t understand, and, however badass it may be, one that’s not particularly enjoyable to watch, Eastwood should have realized this, and cut down on the game play and put a little more work into the story.
No, I have zero idea what’s happening here.
Morgan Freeman definitely deserves some recognition for his work here, but this film is another example of an Eastwood directing style that I’m really growing to dislike, despite all its critical acclaim. It’s a great story, and it will hold you down and force you to be at least a little bit inspired, but Invictus is far from the film it could have been.
3 out of 5 stars