Review: Invictus

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, film, matt damon, morgan freeman, clint eastwood, rugby, world cup, 1995, south africa, nelson mandela, francois pienaar,

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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 StephensSee all reviews

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    amy Reply

    “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.”

    It’s exactly that which disappointed me about Invictus. The film is not particularly bad, but it’s quite boring. It’s as if Eastwood didn’t know whether to make a political film, or a sports film… and he made both bland.

  2. Avatar
    rtm Reply

    First let me say happy belated birthday, Dan! That’s awesome that we share the same b’day.

    I like this movie more than I thought I would. I actually don’t mind the lack of pace of the sports itself as you mentioned. I saw this as more than a sports movie, but an inspiring story about a great leader.

  3. Avatar
    CMrok93 Reply

    This piece was definitely entertaining, and Freeman gives off an amazing performance as always, but I just wanted more. Eastwood’s pace is terribly slow at points and it just made me move around more and more in my seat. Good Review!

  4. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @amy: Precisely. The film feels like it was made to ‘like’ – inspirational leader, triumphant sports team etc., and there’s nothing subtle about it. It just felt forced.

    @rtm: Thank you, Ruth. I hope you had a good birthday. I felt the rugby action – because we don’t get many rugby films – should have been more faithful to the game. It was paced like American Football when the game is actually a lot faster than that.

    @CMrok93: I’ve got to give Morgan Freeman credit for a good Nelson Mandela impression. I wasn’t too bothered about the laboured pace of the film more the Sunday League juniors playing rugby union in slow-motion when these guys were supposed to be the best in the world.

  5. Avatar
    Paragraph Film Reviews Reply

    I felt almost nauseous after watching this – just far too much sugar-coated sentimental sports movie cliches in here for me to handle.

    Also, every time Freeman spoke it sounded like Team America’s Kim Jong Il

  6. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Paragraph: I get the nausea feeling. It’s strange how Eastwood should go from a gritty film with a brilliant but saddening ending in Gran Torino to a film that wants to force its audience to feel happy. That hurt the film for me. It’s trying too hard to be a crowd-pleaser on a grand scale and in doing so has no subtleties, no depth, no real character progression.

  7. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Hmmm. I am in a little bit of agreeance with you on this one, Dan, but I think I fell for Invictus’ charms a lot heavier than you did. On reflection, I think you might be right in a lot of what you’ve said, but I’m going to have to re-watch this film and (after writing my own review) revisit this article and let you know!

  8. Avatar
    Darren Reply

    I have to admit, I enjoyed it, even if I couldn’t understand having Morgan Freeman as Mandela and focusing on rugby. I get that it was important, but surely there’s a more interesting way to explore the early years of Mandela’s term in office.

  9. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Darren: Yeah, like there was scope for one or the other. Even though Mandela played a crucial role in wider context of the world cup win, it may well have been more constructive to focus more on one aspect than both.

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