Review: Invictus (2009)

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Teaming for the third time with Morgan Freeman, Eastwood’s final film of his most productive and successful decade to date was Invictus. Yet another new frontier for the director, not one to slow with age, this was Eastwood’s first attempt at a sport film.
Reliving the story of Nelson Mandela’s early presidency, Invictus follows the newly elected leader’s plan to unite his post-apartheid nation through the country’s rugby team, a former symbol of the white oppressors. Collaborating with Captain Francois Pienaar to establish the team as an institution which can be supported by all colours, Mandela sees World Cup victory as a much needed catalyst to healing the wounds of racial segregation.

Opening with newsreels covering Mandela’s release from prison and election to office interspersed with similarly shot scenes of Freeman, Invictus does not dwell on the politics surrounding the election, preferring instead to thrust itself headfirst into the new president’s first day in office. The issue of race relations is raised, rather appropriately, from the very beginning, Mandela’s appointment of an equal mixture of black and white men to his presidential guard creating conflicts within his own administration. The evolution of the relationships between these men, begrudgingly forced to work together, serves as the primary representation of the changes in South Africa and its population throughout the film. As Mandela comes to have his bodyguards overcome their prejudices and forgive those who did them wrong, so too does he slowly repair his country’s damaged state, caused as it is by the distrust of decades of apartheid.

Personally chosen by Mandela himself as the man to portray him in a biopic, Freeman invokes the spirit of the great leader wonderfully, the vocalizations and stature he adapts transforming him entirely into his character. Matt Damon, too, manages a convincing South African accent, his impressively bulky physique a testament to his dedication to the role. He is believable as the earnest leader of these men and the guiding light of his nation, his own personal desire to bring union to his countrymen well realized in his performance.

Naturally, one of Invictus’ primary fixations is with its scenes of rugby. Eastwood here directs well, pursuing the action as it speeds across fields, dodging hulking bodies as they do battle. Sweeping crane shots across seas of faces in the crowd do much to enforce the meaningfulness of this passion to so many, and to communicate how exactly a simple game can unite an entire nation and undo the harm of long years’ toil. That very idea is touched with an element of fantasy, as real-world as this story is, but it is expressed herein in as believable a manner as possible, thankfully avoiding the hideous cliché of showing multiple sets of black and white people hugging each other in delight.

The conclusion of the film, even to those unfamiliar with this story, will come as no surprise, completing the sports movie recipe. Like much of Eastwood’s genre work, Invictus abides too closely to a set formula, following a path already trodden by dozens of films before it. The team begins as the absolute underdogs, rises gradually through tough training, overcomes challenges along the way, receives an uplifting motivational speech, and takes to the pitch for the final game. Well executed though it is, Invictus lacks any sort of real element of tension or drama to make it stand out amidst its generic brethren. Yes, its message is important and its performances commendable, but there lies in this story nothing special to endear it particularly like the best of Eastwood’s output. The narrative, much like the lighting, is lacking that rich darkness which makes this director’s better works so appealing.

Falling far below Eastwood’s finest work, Invictus still has aspects which make it worth watching. Freeman and Damon are well cast in their roles, their interplay a satisfactory reliving of this story. The narrative progresses along a steady track, but there are peaks of quality along the way. Showing the manner in which a shared passion can unite an otherwise divided people, this is a straightforward sports movie, but one which works nonetheless.

[notification type=”star”]66/100 – Like much of Eastwood’s genre work, Invictus abides too closely to a set formula; this is a straightforward sports movie, but one which works nonetheless.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.