Invictus is Latin for "unconquered." In a somewhat unfair comparison of Clint Eastwood's "unconquered" to his earlier "Unforgiven" ... the World Cup notwithstanding, states Kimberly Gadette, there is no contest.
In viewing this film, one particular question burns bright: did someone abduct director Clint Eastwood? As opposed to his usual intensity, economy of style and no-nonsense depiction of strong characters, Eastwood's latest Invictus is akin to a lumbering rugby player pounding the same ground over and over again.
Speaking of lumbering rugby players, in 1995, the ninth-seeded South African Springboks were never expected to win anything but derision. However, newly elected president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) hit upon a novel concept: in working with Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), he would transform his racially-divided country into one united black and white fan base, each and every citizen cheering the players on to a World Cup championship under the motto, "One team, one country."
Since there are many scenes literally played out on the field, a clue or two about the game of rugby would have helped. With apologies to Indie Movies' international readership, since rugby is not all that well-known in the US, this American reviewer would have appreciated a few facts about the game itself.
Example: we see two groups of men, sixteen players in all, locking heads, arms and legs, sweating and straining in one fetid mass (the "scrum"). What's the objective? It looks like these fellows are either trying to lay an egg or, worse yet, engaged in discharging one giant collective poo.
The rules of the game may be unspoken, but the objective of Anthony Peckham's flat screenplay yammers at us repeatedly. Can apartheid-torn South Africa ever truly become a rainbow coalition? How about the two factions of Mandela's own secret service? One, the Special Branch, was previously employed by the outgoing white President F.W. de Klerk, while the other group is loyal only to the black majority ANC (African National Congress). Men who were at each other's throats simply turn the other cheek once the games start heating up. They're so excited over their winning team, they almost embrace. (The fact that the agents continuously concentrate on the game, rather than guarding President Mandela, is a bit unnerving.)
Considering the frequent hugs and grins of the disparate countrymen, Invictus is less of a film than a salute to the renowned 1970s Coke commercial ("I'd like to teach the world to sing"). Throw in UNICEF and a few United Colors of Benetton ads and wow, racial inequity is gone. Whitewashed, as it were.
And speaking of simple stereotypes, the film's depiction of Nelson Mandela, a 27-year political prisoner turned president who bore no ill will toward his jailors, verges on the offensive. Instead of a learned humanitarian, Freeman gives us a sweet, slightly addled interpretation, including not one but two long scenes that see him nodding and shaking hands with each member of the rugby team. Rather than governing, this Mandela looks to be an easily-bored oldster whose eyes keep straying to the television set. And who just may be too feeble for the job of president. This is not the citizen of the world that we think of with reverence, the well-educated lawyer, one-time boxer, Nobel Peace Prize winner and champion of a multitude of human rights issues.
As for Damon, he gives an earnest, albeit pallid performance. To be fair, there is nothing in the interminably-long script that allows him much leeway to do anything but hang around in that above-referenced sweaty scrum, exhorting his teammates to: "Listen to your country. This is it. This is our destiny!"
Ironically, it was just a year ago that Eastwood's superbly wrought Gran Torino debuted, raw and honest, with well-realized characters, examining heated race relations in a multi-generational context. As beautifully as Nick Schenk's screenplay worked in tandem with Eastwood's directing, this current bloated wonder by Anthony Peckham leaves a small but nasty smudge on Eastwood's formidable body of work: a career that comprises directorial efforts in thirty features, as well as his accumulation of five Academy Awards.
Sullying such an impressive body of work isn't all that easy. Maybe Peckham deserves some kind of award, too. Perhaps his very own Razzie.
Rating on a scale of 5 rugby balls pulled out from under us: 2
Release date: US: 11 December 2009; UK: 5 February 2010
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by: Anthony Peckham
Based on the book Playing the Enemy by: John Carlin
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, Marguerite Wheatley
Rating: US = PG-13; UK = TBD
Running time: 134 minutes