Invictus (2009)

[Rating:3.5/5]                  

Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, Marguerite Wheatley, Leleti Khumalo.
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Director:  Clint Eastwood
Rating:  PG-13
Running Time:  133 Mins.
Release Date:  December 11, 2009
DVD Release Date:  TBD
Box Office: $37,491,364
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Spyglass Productions, Revelations Entertainment, Mace Neufeld Productions, Malpaso, and Warner Bros. Pictures.

Written By:  Anthony Peckham, based on a novel by John Carlin.

“I was thinking how a man could spend thirty years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him…” — Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon).

With so much documented about Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life, I admit to having next to no knowledge about South Africa’s role in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  Prior to seeing the film, I admit that I balked at the premise of a rugby match ending Apartheid-era racial conflicts in a country where racial discrimination and horrific atrocities dominated the South African landscape for such a lengthy period.  To Clint Eastwood’s credit, “Invictus” not only provides a background for the importance of the event, but also reminds us of why sports and entertainment, in general, can bring disparate groups together to share in a powerful and unifying moment.  I only wish that I was less an observer and more an engaged participant while watching the captivating story that Eastwood and writer, Anthony Peckham, present to the viewer.

Quickly moving through Nelson Mandela’s release from a 30-year prison sentence to his election as President in the first multi-racial presidential election in post-Apartheid South Africa, Eastwood begins “Invictus” as Mandela takes power.  He is an intimidating presence for the exiting government workers until he gathers everyone together and offers them all a position in the new administration.  Played with much skill and aplomb by Morgan Freeman, Mandela constantly presents as something different than anticipated.  Upon meeting him, people warm to him and under Freeman’s hand, it is easy to see why.  In “Invictus”, Mandela is a kind, soft-spoken and assured leader who exhibits a strong and commanding charisma that draws everyone in.

As Mandela takes command of the new South Africa, Eastwood documents the country’s biggest sporting attraction, the national rugby team, the Springboks, who are not just hated for their terrible play and constant losing, but also their ties to the Apartheid-era of South African culture.  Led by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the team is blown out in every match and are an embarrassment.  When South Africa is awarded as host country for the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela senses the opportunity to reintroduce South Africa to the international community, as well as the citizens of his own country.  Mandela meets with Pienaar and without saying the words explicitly, conveys to Pienaar the importance and necessity for the Springboks to perform well in the tournament.  Overseeing a “One-Team One-Nation” campaign, support rallies for the Springboks and Mandela himself sports the controversial Apartheid-era colors of green and gold in support of the team.  The rest as the say is history and South Africa’s improbable victory in the tournament is identified through “Invictus” as one of, if not the definitive, final moments in retiring the racial tensions in post-Apartheid South Africa.

With his work in the decade just past, Clint Eastwood has been arguably America’s most confident and consistent filmmaker; not always in terms of box office receipts, but in terms of delivering powerful and moving motion pictures.  Rest assured, “Invictus” is a very good film, with some moving moments, but the sum total of the film seems to lack the punch it needs to deliver to be truly special.  That it doesn’t resonate the way it should is a shame because everyone is in top-notch form here.

Morgan Freeman’s Mandela is a quiet, confident, likeable leader, even when his flaws and indiscretions are skirted over and/or barely acknowledged.  Matt Damon nails a spot-on South African accent and I only wish he was given more to do here.  With his moments on screen, Damon keeps everything very close to the vest and with subtle facial expression and a pained voice, conveys the pressure and importance of not wanting to let his country down.  The supporting work is equally solid.  Adjoa Andoh, who plays Brenda, Mandela’s assistant, is a strong contrast and realist to Mandela’s seemingly heady views on how to restore South Africa to what he refers to as a “shining light.”  Eastwood peppers the quieter moments with his now trademark sparse and subdued piano-based score and South African music and rhythm punctuates the proceedings in selections from vocal group Overtone.

At the conclusion of “Invictus”, which culminates in the Rugby final pitting South Africa against the dominate New Zealand All Blacks team, we delight in the victory but I was ultimately not moved by the importance of the event.  I wanted to be.  In hindsight, there are many moments that did not resonate the way I wanted them too.  Make no mistake, there are some powerful moments that touch your heart, but there are equally as many that do not.  I can only draw the conclusion that perhaps Anthony Peckham’s screenplay is a bit of a failure in some regards.

To find an underwhelming screenplay in an Eastwood film is a bit of a surprise, when compared with Eastwood’s “Mystic River”, “Million Dollar Baby”, or the WWII powerhouses, “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Flags Of Our Fathers.”  It must be said however that even if “Invictus” doesn’t hit that emotional mark it is seeking, so much of this is engaging and watchable, that you might be able to look past its most significant of flaws.

At the end of day, “Invictus” succeeds in spotlighting an overlooked moment in a troubled country’s rebirth.  The film also is a reminder as to why people rally in mass populace for events like a Super Bowl, the Oscars, or even things like localized sports and cultural events.  We all want to be entertained and we all love the underdog story.  “Invictus” gives us that – but instead of feeling a part of the moment and reliving it, we are merely observers to a disconnected moment in history.

“Invictus” received the following Academy Award Nominations for 2009:
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Morgan Freeman)
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Matt Damon)

Should I See It?

YES

Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are so great when they work together, and “Invictus” is another example.  Freeman is wonderful as Mandela and the acting from the entire cast is of the highest regard.

Everyone loves an underdog story and “Invictus” recounts an often ignored but important example of David conquering Goliath.

“Invictus” is not the Clint Eastwood rugby movie.  Yes, it is rugby-heavy in it’s second half, but the performances are so good and the moments which do connect make this an engaging and interesting watch.

NO

Your interest in the subject matter will be the test.  While not a “rugby movie” per se, it has a rugby-heavy second half which might bore some non-sports fans.

A little bit of research on the screenplay will give you some jarring historical inaccuracies.  If you know much of this story and the events leading up to the tournament, you might be blowing your own whistle and calling your own fouls.

Although not a disqualifier for me, some have complained that Morgan Freeman falls in and out of the Mandela accent and thus, they were disengaged from the performance and the film as a result.

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