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. 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.