Clint Eastwood's Invictus is so skillfully done and has such honest intentions that it is easy to be overwhelmed by it, and consequently overlook its flaws. A full appreciation of it also requires a tamping down, or at least a readjustment, of one's expectations; when a viewer hears that Morgan Freeman is playing Nelson Mandela for Eastwood, well, one doesn't expect a sports movie, albeit a sports movie with more at stake than pride and glory. But taken on its own terms, as its own particular entity, it works.
It begins in 1990, with Mandela's release after 27 years in prison, into a country that, we're told, "appears to be on the verge of a civil war." The opening scenes briskly and efficiently zip through his journey from freedom to the South African presidency, and the challenges that face him as he looks upon a country that is clearly split in two. Powerful elements in his own party propose to effectively dismantle the Springboks, the South African national rugby union team that they have spent their lives rooting against, feeling the team is representative of years of oppression. Mandela, however, sees this as a fatal political calculation that will further polarize the citizenry. "This is the time to rebuild our nation," Mandela tells them, in an inspiring speech, "using every brick that comes to us." Ingeniously, he seizes upon the Springboks as a potential unifying force for the country, enlisting the team's captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to push the team to victory at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
I remain astonished by the prolificity of Eastwood, now 79 years old and still kicking out an average of a movie a year, to say nothing of the astonishingly high quality of his recent work; he is one of our most confident and reliable filmmakers. His style isn't showy or fussy, and his work here is controlled and professional, though not without flavor or passion (the picture is also blessed with a better script than that of last year's over-praised Gran Torino, and is thankfully free of that film's narrative and tonal clumsiness). His camerawork and compositions are workmanlike but not drab, and his storytelling is clean.
He also clearly remains an actor's director--Freeman's is a simply wonderful performance (of course--it's a perfect piece of casting), while Damon is quiet, understated, and subtle. Screenwriter Anthony Peckham (working from John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy) wisely resists the urge to make Pienaar some kind of racist monster who is completely transformed by his interactions with Mandela; instead, he is basically an indifferent figure who is flattered by the "great opportunity" he is given, and rises to it. That's harder to write, and harder to play, but more rewarding to watch. He also gets one of the film's best scenes, as the rugby team visits the jail where Mandela spent those 27 years; as he stands in the great man's cell and reflects on that journey, his single, perfectly chosen line makes the scene deeply moving without being overly sentimental.
Not all of Eastwood and Peckham's choices play quite as strongly. While I appreciated the brevity of the opening sequence, its compression of events wreaks havoc on our sense of time; it feels as though Mandela is elected within a few months rather than years, and his mention of attending the 1992 Olympics was my first indication of how much time had passed. The early business with the factions of Mandela's security detail is a little heavy-handed (though it pays off handsomely, if somewhat manipulatively, in later scenes). The music, by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens, is stirring, but his mid-film use of the Undertone song "Colorblind" is a miscalculation; its lyrics are laughably on-the-nose, akin to that unfortunate closing song that Eastwood warbled in Gran Torino. And, at risk of sounding like an ignorant American, it must be noted that the accents render some of the dialogue difficult to decipher (mostly that of supporting players).
In its closing scenes, Eastwood allows the sports drama to overwhelm the human one, which is unfortunate; though the rugby action is sprinkled through the film, it doesn't feel like we're leading up to the conventional "big game" climax of countless sports pictures before it. We're also left to wonder whether the film is using the rugby team as a kind of metaphor for the unification of South Africa, or believes that that's all it took. To be sure, we get no real overall sense of what Mandela did for the country during his presidency; his policy initiatives are glimpsed only as discussions in meetings that he ducks out of to see how the Springboks are doing. Is the story-telling simple-minded? Perhaps; a scene or two of Mandela doing some actual governing (instead of, say, the easy subplot about Damon's family's maid) wouldn't have hurt. Then again, that might be for a more straight-forward Mandela biopic.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
As with most of Warner Brothers' recent Blu-ray releases, Invictus comes as a two-disc set: the 50GB Blu-ray disc, and a second disc holding a DVD version of the film and a digital copy for viewing on portable devices.
Invictus arrives on Blu-ray with a warm, good-looking VC-1 1080p transfer. Color saturation leans towards the cool side (even the greens of the rugby fields are subdued), but this seems an appropriate and deliberate choice, giving the picture a subtly and slightly aged feel. Grain is present and inviting, while details are impressively rendered and contrast is sharp (thanks to cinematographer Tom Stern's vivid use of hot, white light). And there are flashes of beauty in it: Mandela's early-morning walk is a gorgeous sequence, with black levels rich and full, the cool blue overtones evocative. The 2.39:1 image is more muted than some might care for, but it's appropriate for the film, and lovely in its own way.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track mostly rotates between quiet dialogue scenes and full, powerful rugby matches, and handles both with aplomb. Dialogue is clean and audible in the center channel (even considering the thicket of accents), while environmental effects are powerful and immersive--particularly in those matches, where the mix roars to life with the cheers of the crowd, the crunch of the action on the field, and the score, which is heavy on the bass drums (and therefore keeps the LFE channel plenty busy).
French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included, as are English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles.
"Vision, Courage, and Honor" is the disc's centerpiece bonus feature, another of Warner's impressive picture-in-picture presentations. Crisply intermingling interviews with cast, crew (including Eastwood), and participants in the original story with behind-the-scenes footage to compliment the on-screen action, the feature is packed with information and excellent footage. While not as glossy and showy as their "Maximum Movie Mode" presentations (as on the Sherlock Holmes Blu-ray), it is still an outstanding extra and a fairly seamless "making-of" primer.
The "Behind the Story" section offers two additional featurettes. While "Mandela Meets Morgan" (28:10) is titled with a focus on the leader and the actor playing him, it also includes some general background on the project. But the goldmine here is the footage of Mandela and Freeman meeting and chatting in the run-up to production, and Freeman's candid, funny, and heartfelt recollections of the man. "Matt Damon Plays Rugby" (6:49) examines how the actor trained with the real Francois Pienaar in order to convincingly pull of the rugby sequences. "The Eastwood Factor" (22:23), which was also included in Warner's massive Eastwood "35 Years 35 Films" box set, is an extended excerpt from a longer documentary by critic and historian (and confirmed Eastwood fan) Richard Schickel; it's well-made and knowledgeable, but primarily functions to whet the appetite for the full-length piece. Wrapping up the disc is the "Invictus Music Trailer" (2:36) which is actually just a standard trailer with a soundtrack plug at the end.
The disc is also BD-Live equipped, though no bonus content related to this film is currently available.
Eastwood clearly seized upon the World Cup championship as a singularly cinematic way to tell this story, and there is no doubt that, whatever its flaws, Invictus is compelling, emotional viewing and absolutely worth seeing. But I can't help but wonder about the film he chose not to make with these materials.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.