Invictus has all the trappings of a major Oscar contender. It’s based on a noble true story, one that changed the course of history. It has a cast that includes Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. And it has Academy favorite director Clint Eastwood calling the shots. So, it came as a huge disappointment that I found almost nothing to enjoy about the movie.
The truly inspiring story tells how Nelson Mandela enlisted the help of the national rugby team to unite South Africa. He had a vision of the hapless team winning the 1995 World Cup with South Africa as the host country, a vision he shared with team captain Francois Pienaar (Damon). Mandela believed in the universal language of sport to bring his people together.
It actually sounds great on paper. And the movie oozes with integrity and historical accuracy, although some liberties were taken. Mandela kept the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley with him while he was incarcerated. It was one of his inspirations – “Invictus” being Latin for “Invincible.” In the movie, he gives the poem to Pienaar before the big match. In reality though, Mandela gave him an extract from Theodore Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" speech from 1910.
The thing is, Eastwood and his screenwriters needed to take even more liberties. The whole affair feels like the driest of history books and seems content to present us with dramatizations of the facts, in order, as they happened. It reminded me of the failings of the similarly well-meaning epic Gandhi from 1982 – an Oscar darling. The events are all there, but we aren’t given that touch of insight that allows us to see a bit of ourselves in the characters.
It reminds me of the current audience favorite The Blind Side – my wife and daughters are still mad at me for not liking it – which tried to take a story without a good villain and make us cherish the hero’s victory, but victory over what? That movie at least tried though. I just felt sorry for the poor English teacher who was made the villain simply for giving Big Mike the grades he deserved.
That movie’s writers needed to invent conflict where there was none. It’s called artistic license. With Invictus, the writers needed to create a stronger, more identifiable, impression that Mandela and the rugby team were bonded together by a shared destiny. The closest thing they were able to muster was having Mandela make a point of learning all of the players’ names. Otherwise, he and the players may as well exist in different movies.
Or, maybe, the writers needed to show more respect for the well-worn – for good reason – sports movie formulas. The success of the movie hinges on its thrilling the audience as the hopeless team manages to pull together and pull off the impossible. Unfortunately, this crucial ball was fumbled so completely that I had no idea how the team managed the feat. They just seemed to wake up one morning knowing how to play well. Why didn’t the writers study great sports movies like Miracle?
Invictus may well get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and it certainly deserves some recognition for its elegant craftsmanship, but I think the “crowd” I saw it with judged the movie accurately. Out of the 17 people in the theater, I saw eight of them stretch and yawn before prying themselves out of their seats.