Desperate times often call for desperate measures. But in Clint Eastwood’s stale and disappointing biopic Invictus, newly elected and embattled South African president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) seems downright cavalier about his torn country on the precipice of racial revolt. It’s as if Mandela knows he’s destined for a happy ending, that the forgone conclusion is just around the corner.
In a nicely stoic turn, Freeman paints Mandela as practically omniscient, achieving sweeping and rather easy unity by rallying his dispirited countrymen around a common source of inspiration. Through Eastwood’s uncharacteristically rosy lens, decades of Apartheid trauma and violence get muted in favor of the endless array of cheers, high fives, and slaps on the back for the country’s rejuvenated national Rugby team, the Spingbok’s.
Eastwood pushes his blunt-force symbolism from the first frame as Mandela’s motorcade races down a country road dissecting two soccer fields, one occupied by black children playing in tattered clothes and the other inhabited by a white team. The children cheer for the just-released Mandela while the grizzled old white Coach spells the turning of the tide – “This is the day our country went to the dogs.” Beyond just cliche, the sequence is incredibly lazy from a film-making standpoint, marking Mandela as a messiah that the everyday folks either revere or revile, with nothing in between.
These symbolic patterns continue throughout Invictus, paralleling Mandela’s quest to alleviate national concerns (about black retribution and white fear) by sparking interest in the World Cup of Rugby and his relationship with the Springbok’s captain, an honorable and loyal sportsmen named Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). The two actors only share a few dynamic scenes, so their communication of message, spread by two men of the same ideological ilk, becomes the driving force of Invictus. Freeman delves deep into Mandela’s passion, bringing a grace to the man’s every movement and glance. But each actor looks stuck by the sugary world around them, stricken by the film’s limiting, plodding screenplay. Eastwood relies almost entirely on cross-cutting between the two men, as Mandela skirts around the country preaching his plan while Pienaar miraculously gets his mates into fighting shape.
Beyond the lead characters, Invictus attempts to build a national consensus, highlighting minor players of different races like Mandela’s bodyguards or Francois’ maid. Yet Eastwood’s direction and Tom Stern’s glossy cinematography becomes far too calculated, too polished to sustain any sense of suspense. Eastwood is content using the sports movie conventions to slowly build toward an inevitable finale, one devoid of excitement or tension. The ideas for unity are strong, but the execution lacks depth of conflict.
While the true story of Mandela and the Springboks remains undeniably essential in terms of our modern historical context, Eastwood’s treatment remains unforgivably syrupy. His didactic ideologies seep through the perfectly composed visuals, in turn feeding a ravenously sentimental musical score constantly complimenting the endless shots of crowds celebrating, blacks and whites rejoicing together under an open blue sky.
The glaring failure to convey subtext only heightens the knowledge of how great Eastwood can be with potentially hollow material. A Perfect World remains an indelible example, a beautifully constructed period piece on the clash between 1950’s childhood innocence and adult sin, poetically exploring the nuances of each character beneath the surface. But unlike World, the heart and soul of Invictus exists entirely for easy digestion, without doubt of the process or end result. Invictus not only falls prey to the pitfalls of the Sports genre, but also becomes a tired time-capsule of personal wistfulness, ignoring the glaring complexities of the social and political situations occurring beyond the playing field, while joyously reveling in the befuddlement of the spectacle. Victory and unity are only this harmonious in the fantasy dreamscape of Hollywood.