Invictus (2009)

Nelson Mandela and the South African rugby team compete for storytelling attention in Clint Eastwood’s decent sports biopic.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Dir. Clint Eastwood
2009 | USA | Biography/Drama/History | 134 mins | 2.39:1 | English & Afrikaans
PG13 (passed clean) for brief strong language

Cast: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge
Plot: Nelson Mandela, in his first term as President of South Africa, initiates a unique venture to unite the Apartheid-torn land: enlist the national rugby team on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
Awards: Nom. for 2 Oscars – Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor
Distributor: Warner Bros

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: In Theatres
First Published: 9 Jan 2010
Spoilers: No

Clint Eastwood is on a scoring streak. Since Mystic River (2003), he has made one excellent film after another, some of them amazing such as Million Dollar Baby (2004), Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), and Changeling (2008).

Even at an extraordinary age of eighty, he continues to direct one film per year, and receives a deservedly fair share of critical accolades for each. His economical style of directing is admired and his contribution to American cinema revered. 

In Invictus, the great director tackles Nelson Mandela, not as a biopic but as an inspirational drama with Morgan Freeman anchoring the lead role as the ‘visionary thinker’ rather than as the ‘reverent leader’ whom we all come to know, using rugby to unite South Africans in a progressive strategy to bring the country to political, economic, and social order after the ravages of apartheid.

Here the focus is on sports, or more specifically, the 1995 Rugby World Cup held in Mandela’s homeland. Matt Damon plays Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African rugby team, who leads by example after a meeting with Mandela who covertly hints him to win the World Cup to unite his countrymen despite the possibility of facing strong squads such as England or New Zealand.

Based on true events, Invictus manages to faithfully recreate the stunning atmosphere of the occasion through CG technology. Similar to Ridley Scott’s rendering of the spectators in the Colosseum in Gladiator (2000), Eastwood brings ‘crowd’ realism to another level by taking advantage of the technological advancement (nearly a decade’s worth) in visual effects.

“Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.”

While the excellent portrayals of the characters by Freeman and Damon are moments to savor, Invictus sometimes becomes too by-the-book; the screenplay structure turns out to be more rigid than expected, following the generic formula of most underdog sport movies.

Towards the final quarter, the film becomes an exercise in ‘repetitive physical motions’ – rugby players from both sides chasing after the ball, and slamming into each other in slow motion. Haven’t we seen all this before?

At the very least, Eastwood directs these scenes well. But I long for the day a director could film a sports event with a fresh perspective (both visually and textually).

In general, Invictus is a well-made picture. It is solid and as valuable as any top-notch genre film about an underdog fighting to the top, or exhibiting sporting excellence through the power of inspiration and perspiration i.e. Rocky (1976), Chariots of Fire (1981) etc.

However, it is not as potent a picture as Eastwood’s other works. The main problem (apart from other flaws), I feel, lies in the film’s split focus on Mandela, and (then) the South African rugby team. 

Invictus thus becomes a film of two halves, a mental tussle between two important subjects trying hard to have a substantial slice of the viewer’s attention. But still, worth a look though. 

Grade: B+



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