Sure would seem like a good year to be South Africa, cinematically speaking. First they send us the thoroughly awesome District 9, and then the legendary Clint Eastwood comes to town to recreate one of their prouder moments. Obviously Invictus and District 9 have little in common besides geography; District 9 is the more energetic and trailblazing film. As much as I love Clint Eastwood’s work, Invictus is just another solid entry in a stunning filmography, but not one of the more transcendent pictures he’s ever made.
I’m not the guy you come to for a balanced assessment of Clint Eastwood’s career. I believe that when all’s said and done, Clint has the best career in the history of Hollywood. I’m a massive fan of what the man has accomplished. I love him as a screen icon, but I probably love him even better as a director of durable, thoughtful, intellectually searching, emotionally affecting cinema. I respect the hell out of Clint’s restlessness. I love that he never really does what you’d expect him to do, and even when he does (take on a Western or a vigilante picture), he sees or shows it from a different angle. To this day, I look forward to a new Clint Eastwood movie the way that nerds look forward to the next Star Trek movie, or the way obnoxious women look forward to Sex & The City 2. I’m a nerd for Clint Eastwood movies, if that exists.
So it will be hardly surprising to anyone when I admit that I liked Invictus very, very much. It’s a typically confident production from Clint and his team, including cinematographer Tom Stern and editor Joel Cox. Some people will object to the deliberate pacing, which is fine, but I appreciated how the movie takes its time to orient the American audience in a foreign country (South Africa), to acquaint the American audience with the ways of an unfamiliar sport (rugby), and to allow the audience to bask in the pair of terrific lead performances (from Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.)
Invictus is the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and how newly-elected President Nelson Mandela used South Africa’s national team, the Springboks, as a rallying force to make the necessary initial strides in unifying a nation previously divided by apartheid. The film focuses on Mandela’s momentum towards this goal, and his gentle, subtle recruiting of Springboks captain Francois Pienaar to help him. Morgan Freeman is predictably believable as Mandela; while he isn’t as precise a physical or vocal match as most have rushed to suggest, he is of course without peer among actors in conveying a calm authority, warm yet steadfast, able to suggest loss and pain only hinted at in dialogue. Matt Damon is really just having another terrific year – it’s amazing how he could shift from the shlubby Midwestern dope of The Informant! (underrated) to the intense, energetic, thoroughly physical Pienaar. It’s hard to imagine another pair of actors who can both so believably inspire and believably be inspired. It’s also interesting to see how Eastwood, Freeman, and Damon are able to create drama despite the absence of any distinct villains – Mandela and Pienaar are unequivocably heroic characters who immediately garner each others’ respect and never waver throughout the course of the film.
Invictus is worthy and affecting, and it is valuable as a historical document to dumbos like myself who were previously only a little bit aware of the events depicted here. The film as a whole is probably not quite as compelling as its best moments (the first meeting between Mandela and Pienaar, the Springboks’ practice with a group of disadvantaged village children, Pienaar’s visit to the cell Mandela occupied for almost three decades, the climactic rugby match), because it’s very possible that this is a story too big for a two-hour movie. The screenplay by Anthony Peckham (based on Playing The Enemy by John Carlin) does as impressive a job as could conceivably be done in condensing these momentous events and their multiple story threads, but there just isn’t enough time to go deep into everything, for example getting to know the individual Springboks better. After Matt Damon, the only guys who make any impression are The One Black Guy, The Gigantic Forearms Guy, and The Guy Who Kicks The Climactic Goal — played by one of Clint’s sons! There’s also a couple potential terrorist attack moments in the film that, while probably based in fact, ultimately exist in the film to create additional drama that the film doesn’t really need. What I’m saying is, Invictus is yet another B+ from the reliable-at-worst Eastwood, who more directors would do well to emulate, but it isn’t one of his masterworks.
For the aficionados, it’s interesting to consider why Clint may have made Invictus at this point in time. From what little I have read so far of the backstory, Morgan Freeman brought the story to Clint because they’re pals. Morgan Freeman has longed to play Mandela for years – understandably, as there isn’t any better casting – and the World Cup angle was an interesting “in” to Mandela’s story. Additionally, there’s probably no American viewer who watches this movie and doesn’t have at least a passing thought of Mr. Obama, and further, Mr. Jeter. I doubt that Clint is particularly a huge fan of either, however, and while he’s certainly done right by his pal by directing him to a memorable performance, I doubt that’s the sole reason for Clint taking on this project either.
I think that what attracted Clint to Invictus is that this material is at heart about iconography, the power of images and persona. Iconography is one of the running themes of Clint’s career, and arguably no one alive understands it better, in relation to cinema. In movies like Pale Rider, Unforgiven, and Gran Torino, Clint dealt with his own iconography, the way that moviegoers respond to him onscreen, the meaning of “Clint Eastwood,” and the limits of where he can take his own image. Invictus is concerned with the same general subject, and in that way it’s of a piece with much of Clint’s other work. Clint is going beyond political concerns here – his admiration for Nelson Mandela no doubt has much to do with Mandela’s savvy insight into the ways that iconography can reach people in ways that words never can. Mandela understood that winning the World Cup would create an excitement among the people of South Africa, and doing it with the green and gold of the Springboks’ uniforms, the colors previously associated with apartheid, would be a revelation. If Mandela could show the white South Africans that their institutions would still be respected in the new South Africa, and if he could motivate the black South Africans to cheer for that previously despised institution, then it would surely be a momentous development. Mandela understood that winning a sports event wouldn’t solve all of his nation’s problems, not even close – nonetheless, the symbolism inherent in the victory would be tremendously positive. Clint Eastwood understands that too, and he understands as well as anyone alive how movies can have a similar power.