Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Anthony Peckham
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon,
Released: 2009 / Genre: Drama (Sports) / Country: USA / IMDB
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Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film Invictus is an idealist’s daydream, working like a life coach to uplift and inspire. The fact it is based on the true story of South Africa’s World Cup-winning rugby union team of 1995, and how the country, still coming to the terms with the enfranchisement of the black African and the ending of apartheid, found commonality during its hosting of the tournament, makes it all the more worthwhile.
Invictus is more about reconciliation than politics. Through the national team’s success, newly appointed leader Nelson Mandela was able to rally a divided nation in togetherness, and crucially, do it front of millions of people watching on television.
It’s the great thing about sports movies, how they can inspire change beyond the floodlit stadiums and sweaty dugouts. Bull Durham used baseball to explore youth versus experience, Remember The Titans used American Football to break the barriers of racial segregation, Coach Carter used basketball to highlight the power of education and bonds formed in the classroom, while Escape To Victory used football to inspire prisoners of war to fulfil their duty.
Invictus, one of few films about rugby union, uses the sport to explore the difficulties faced by a rapidly changing South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid. We see Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) assume office with a largely white cabinet that suddenly has to accept the inclusion of black politicians and staff. We see Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), captain of the South African rugby team, trying to build moral in his players after a damaging defeat to England and in the face of media criticism. Both men fighting different battles, both men separated by the historically significant aesthetics of their skin colour, but who, in the new South Africa, find a common goal: to win the rugby world cup.
Invictus is an easy film to like on the surface. Clint Eastwood made it that way. But underneath the gentle wholesomeness that pervades through the story there’s a lack of depth that renders this a cinema of attractions rather than a cinema of authenticity.
If Mandela isn’t prescribing another piece of wisdom, it’s Pienaar’s turn to inspire his troops to overcome their underdog tag and perform another public service exercise (in one patronising scene, the team teach a bunch of black children how to play the game). Eastwood appears only interested in displaying the good and the wholesome, betraying the most prominent black South African player – Chester Williams – and his plight to fight the insults from his team mates because of his skin colour. Pienaar, portrayed gallantly by Matt Damon, who has a good go at the accent, is a saint; progressive and as driven as the new president. You wouldn’t expect this cinematic version of Pienaar to offer a black player less money than a white player for a break-away league. But that’s just what the real life Pienaar did to Williams following the World Cup.
However, the film is more interesting when it focuses on the team captain than on the country’s leader. Freeman is perfect in the role of Mandela, the mannerisms and distinctive voice and vocal pacing beautifully realised, but Eastwood paints him as an infallible patron saint, who is overtly optimistic, and speaks in soliloquy. Pienaar, although similarly saint-like, at least has familiar characteristics that the audience can cling to. He’s the captain of a team no one thinks can win, and he wants to better himself and the fortunes of his men.
But what hurts the film more than anything else is the sports action itself. Eastwood fails to capture the frantic and often brutal pace of the game, utilising slow-motion all too often. He photographs the games from ground-level but his camera is far too balanced and clean to realise the rough and tumble, blood and guts passion of the sport. At times, his sweeping moves coupled with the brilliant sunshine of a South African winter’s day, would have been better suited to photographing the desert vistas of the western’s he’s so well known for. As the players say in the film – rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. In the film, it’s a hooligan’s game filmed by a gentleman.
Yet, I still found myself enjoying the film thanks largely to my sentimental side. If its historical accuracy is a little shady, its sentiment is not – Invictus is a film built on a familiar formula, devised to stir the soul and inspire the senses. Indeed, if we are to look at the facts, South Africa did win the World Cup against all odds and in the face of major cultural and political transformation and that is something to behold and cherish.
Review by Daniel Stephens – See all reviews