“Invictus” tells the story of how Nelson Mandela coaxed a divided post apartheid South Africa to unite behind the country’s rugby team for the 1995 World Cup match against New Zealand. Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman, who has captured Mandela’s looks, voice and mannerisms perfectly.
What I was struck by most in this otherwise pedestrian sports movie was Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela’s humanity. Mandela wanted to unite the country and move it forward despite the problems caused by apartheid including his own nearly 30 years of imprisonment. “Forgiveness liberates the soul” and “If I cannot change when circumstances demand it how can I ask others to” are two of the film’s many heartfelt lines that Freeman delivers, as Mandela, about moving on with life.
Although I liked these lines and similar ones after a while it felt as if the film was using them as a crutch in place of character development and action. Ultimately the script simplifies Mandela to a series of sound bites. I wanted to know more about Mandela, particularly what happened between his 1990 prison release and the 1995 rugby championship. We see some of this through talk about housing, food, jobs and crime problems but certainly there needs to be more than a rugby match to resolve racism.
Matt Damon portrays Francois Pienaar the rugby team captain who is very affected by Mandela’s humanity and life experience. I give Damon credit for taking on the role because it is not a showy, movie star, “Oscar moments aplenty” type of part. It just requires a good actor and he delivers.
The big game itself is presented with the usual array of well shot sports footage including the requisite slow motion action with cuts to cheering fans. However, for a game which was historically very close the film does not do nearly enough to mine the inherent tension and suspense.
Sports movies usually do not get made about the team that lost. We know going in what the outcome will be. As a result a true sports story should do two things: explain the rules of the game and/or give me characters to care about and root for. In the case of rugby, whose rules are probably not well known to a lot of people, this is especially important. “Invictus” does not clarify rugby rules other than telling us, at one point, that there are seven minutes left to play. In fact, there were at least three points where I thought the South African team had won, as opposed to the film guiding me toward one unbearably suspenseful climactic moment where I could see our heroes succeed. Aside from Damon’s character I did not feel invested in the other team members.
My over all criticism of “Invictus” is that the whole thing was too simplistic. We are given the impression that any lingering post apartheid racism was swept aside by the rugby championship and that people from different sides can come together over sports. I’m sure some of this is true and the movie’s heart is certainly in the right place. However, the whole thing never quite rises much higher than the level a made-for-TV movie…a pretty good made-for-TV movie.
Invectus, director Clint Eastwood,
Warner Brothers Pictures, 134 minutes, rated PG 13