Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Premise: The true story of South African president Nelson Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) efforts to bring the country together by rallying around the success of the country’s rugby team.
What Works: Invictus has a pair of impressive performances by Morgan Freeman as South African president Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as rugby team captain Francois Pienaar. Freeman captures the essence of Mandela’s public persona but also has some quiet moments in which he is able to play him as a frail and fallible human being. Less showy but nonetheless impressive is Matt Damon who pulls off a flawless South African accent and carries the actual arc of the story, embodying the leadership, drive, and greatness that Mandela foresees. The best sports films like Rocky, Raging Bull, Friday Night Lights, and Chariots of Fire recognize the link between the game and wider society. Invictus does this very well; as in Flags of our Fathers, Eastwood shows an understanding of the political power of iconic images and the film demonstrates the power of these kinds of images to heal and bridge cultural divides. There is also a healthy sense of humor to Invictus that relieves some of the tension and deflates the risk of pretentiousness that often haunts films like this one.
What Doesn’t: Although Invictus is well made, the film does not bring much that is new to the sports genre. The scenes of rugby are not all that extraordinary and are not edited in a way that conveys the narrative of the game. Invictus’ dealings with the topic of race is rather perfunctory as the film suggests that decades of intolerance and animosity can be healed in a matter of months through a sporting event. Despite its high profile cast and subject matter, Invictus’ optimistic commentary is not all that far departed from films like Remember the Titans or The Blind Side which use racial reconciliation as a tool to create feel-good entertainment rather than seriously explore the issue.
Bottom Line: In Clint Eastwood’s recent streak of directorial efforts, Invictus is among his better work. While the film may be conventional and runs a light hand over post-apartheid issues, it is a very well done sports picture.
Episode: #269 (December 20, 2009)