Before getting into this, I must admit to being one of those folks who is not terribly familiar with history. I guess that means I am doomed to repeat it. In any case, it is true. I mention this because I am woefully uneducated when it comes to the life and achievements of one Nelson Mandela. Of course I know that he spent more than two decades in prison and after his release rose to the office of president in the wake of the ending apartheid. I also know of that he is a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and is an important part of the unification of South Africa. He truly has done great things, but when it comes to the specifics of his accomplishments or the methods he employed to do so. With that said, Invictus is an inspiring movie if not a great one.
The biopic is a tough genre to truly stand out in. It is not easy to portray someones life on the big screen, to condense their lives down to roughly two hours of screen time. This often leads to films that cover the big points and miss the nuance, regardless of how well they are received. Just look at Ray and Walk the Line as a couple of prime examples. Both are good films, but the distillation process has left them very familiar and safe. Another angle taken is to try to do something legitimately different. Good examples of these attempts would be I'm Not There and Julie & Julia. What does this have to do with Invictus? Easy, Invictus represents yet another angle that can make the standard biopic stand out from a crowd.
Over the years there have been a number of attempts to mount a Nelson Mandela film, generally connected with Morgan Freeman. Who else could play the man? After all, it was Mandela himself who picked Freeman as the actor he wanted to portray him. I can only guess that these projects never got off the ground as they could not figure out how to condense his life down to the length of a movie. Well, it seems that Clint Eastwood and Anthony Peckham found the right inspiration in the book by John Carlin. Instead of trying to cram his life into the movie, focus on one part of it. In this case, the Rugby World Cup that was held early in his term as President.
Invictus picks up the story on the day of Nelson Mandela's release and quickly moves forward to his election as President of South Africa. It is a time of hate and distrust between the ousted white regime and Mandela's regime, which preaches forgiveness and unification. Looking for a way to bring his country together, he turns to rugby, a sport that everyone in the country is a fan of. The trick is to get them all together on the same side to bury the hatchet, so to speak, and begin the healing process.
To that end, Mandela makes sure to watch every game, memorizes all of the players names, and invites the team captain for tea. Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) senses what the president is asking of him. While there is no plot to win the World Cup the president's interest in him and the sport helps inspire him and change how the team sees themselves and their changing place in the world.
Even without knowing what happens, I am sure you can guess how it all goes down. There are no surprises to be found here. As a matter of fact, a good portion is more like an inspirational sports drama than the story of a world leader.
The success of this movie really comes down to a scant few things. Chief among them is the performances of the leads. Morgan Freeman is very good. He has great onscreen charisma and brings a sort of quiet regality to the role. He is joined by Matt Damon who continues to impress. His performance her seems right out of a textbook. He inhabits the character but does not have much room to grow. Still, he brings his skills to bear successfully as the inspirational leader of the rugby team.
Clint Eastwood is a solid director, turning in some of the most memorable films over the past few years. This is no different. I do not feel it is up to the same level as other recent outings, but it is still eminently watchable. While we merely get the surface of the characters and the shallow depths of the situation, Eastwood has crafted a film that is easy to follow, easy to feel good about, yet has enough hints at depth to reveal the true implications of what is happening.
Is Invictus a great or important film? No. It is a good film with some good performances and a story that is important and relevant. It is entertaining enough that you need not care, but for those willing to think about what they have seen, there is some depth to be mined.
Bottom Line: I like this movie. Freeman is very strong and Damon continues his string of consistently good performances. It is very interesting to get this look into a nation that went through some very big changes in a very short period of time. On top of that, Clint Eastwood continues his trend of making intelligent and distinctive films.