Short Version: Invictus is a drama of hope that tugs on some cliched emotional strings.
Screen Rant's Kofi Outlaw reviews Invictus
Invictus is Clint Eastwood's latest directorial offering, adapted from the book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, by John Carlin. The screenplay was written by Anthony Peckham (Sherlock Holmes) and the film stars Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar (the real-life captain of the South African Rugby team during the mid-90s), and Morgan Freeman in a gripping performance as Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black President of the post-apartheid era.
The film tells the true story of Mandela's early days in office, as he fights to bridge the gap of hate and mistrust that has existed for so long between South Africa's white and black citizens. While Mandela is waging that uphill battle on every front of state and government, Francois Pienaar is trying to lead his rugby team The Springboks to some kind of victory on the world rugby stage. Needless to say, as the film opens, both leaders are being overwhelmed by their unlikely goals.
Mandela notices that his countrymen are just as divided over their rugby team as anything else. The blacks see the Springboks (and the team colors) as a lingering ghost of apartheid oppression; the whites, still clinging to their notion of the old South Africa, love the Springboks. With the black population now in the seat of executive power, one of the first things they try to do is replace The Springboks with a new team that will better demonstrate the changed tide of South Africa. However Mandela, always the wise leader, sees great hope and opportunity in this simple example, whereas everyone else (even his closest advisors) see only division and conflict.
Instead of tearing down the Springboks, Mandela opts to build them up: he invites Francois Pienaar over for tea in the executive office, where he craftily probes the young captain until they find common ground in their views of leadership by example. Without ever saying so directly, Mandela lets Francois know that as team captain, he has a duty to show all the world just how great the new South Africa can truly be. Francois takes that message in mind (along with a poem called "Invictus" Mandela shares with him), and starts climbing the mountain toward a World Cup victory.
Based on what type of film this is (and the fact that it's a true story) you can guess what happens from there. Freeman and Damon are both pretty good in their respective roles, with Freeman in particular standing out in his portrayal of the affable, yet wily, Mandela.
Where Invictus fell short (for me) was in the approach to the storytelling. Clint Eastwood is a good director - I think we can all agree on that by now - and a lot of the shots of South Africa, its countryside and peoples, are really quite beautiful to look at. However, the story is very glossed, in that all we get are the slow steps toward triumph taken by both Mandela and Francois. The whole film is basically treated as a sequence of small victories - never once does anything feel at stake or at risk. Even when a few "curve balls" are thrown into the narrative, the problems are either ignored or quickly resolved and we're right back along on path, fully aware of exactly where we're headed (which made it hard to wait more than two hours getting there).
Similarly, both the lead characters come off as idealized and polished. Francois Pienaar seems to instantly accept his role as an ambassador of sorts for the new South Africa, without nary a foul word to speak. Mandela's only flaw is that he's a workaholic who cares too much, with only brief and fleeting glimpses into his troubled personal life. Those portrayals may indeed be true-to-life, but they never feel that way. Instead, the film comes off as a simplified version of an uncertain and tumultuous time in a nation's history. That national angst (which we are certainly familiar with in our modern American context) never really feels present in the film. Why else tell this tale at this point in time? A missed opportunity, in my opinion.
By the end (three guesses what happens), we are treated to some very cliched thematic examples of how South Africa comes together as one nation (if only for a moment), with a warm-your-heart ending that probably had some people leaving the theater feeling hopeful, but instead had me wondering about the dark side of the story, which was obviously glossed over for this film. Two minor gripes I have to make: the CGI crowds in the rugby stadiums looked pretty fake and despite an award-worthy performance, Morgan Freeman's lasting injury to his left arm (following a car crash a few years back) was a very noticeable distraction for me. That's all I'll say on the subject.
Despite being a bit too warm-fuzzy-feel-good, Invictus is a fine film with some strong performances from its leads. You'll also see some truly excellent sequences of professional rugby, which may have ultimately (and ironically) been the most enlightening aspect of this all-too-familiar tale about why we should all learn to play nice together - even when the game involves bashing each other bloody.