Invictus: It Fails to Interest-us
The worst thing about Invictus is the wasted potential. You have Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, one of the most fascinating characters of the last century, and you relegate him to a one-dimensional study of Mandela as a rugby fan. They cover his imprisonment and his rise to power in a montage in the first four minutes of the film, and then from there on, all we hear about is Mandela obsessing over rugby as his advisers all try to get him to discuss issues of state. Was Mandela such a one-note, rugby-hungry, border-irresponsible leader? Of course not. But unless you come into this film with a pre-existing thorough knowledge of Mandela and the sport of rugby, this film’s depictions will likely confuse and bore you. The characters have little complexity, the sports action is shot in a perplexing manner, and Eastwood has his usual lovely cinematography and hollow first draft of a script to try to carry the film along.
The story picks up with Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) having just taken office in South Africa. He is jogging with his security detail in tow, when a van races towards him. Is someone going to try to kill him? No, despite the build in suspenseful music and the two-minute set-up establishing the van as a threat, it’s merely a phony threat, a trick he learned from the writer of Million Dollar Baby Paul Haggis (who is guilty of the most manipulative and phony moment in recent film history in Crash), where one can manipulate the audience into thinking something awful is happening by dwelling on it long and hard with ominous score blaring in the back. This is only the first of three “false assassination attempts” that the film devotes an inordinate amount of time to. It’s as if Eastwood doesn’t trust his audience into being able to realize that Mandela was in danger despite the opening montage explaining that South Africa is racially divided and Mandela was a figure hated by many whites.
But I digress. Since studio heads clearly thought that a mainstream Mandela movie wasn’t going to attract enough people to the box office, they made it also about a muscly attractive white man who was working with Mandela to try to free South Africa from the binds of racism. This is Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), who comes from a family that hates Mandela. Eastwood underlines this fact by making his father a caricature who does nothing in life other than watch TV and make snide jokes about Mandela, as the black housekeeper does nothing in life but look glumly away every time this transpires (again, Eastwood repeats this three or four times in the film, in case we didn’t get it the first time). Their rugby team is a joke. Damon repeatedly makes attempts at inspiring the team with inspiring locker room speeches, to no avail. However, Mandela calls him in for tea, and says since the black people hate the rugby team for being mostly white, and the white people hate Mandela for being black, if they work together and the team wins the Rugby World Cup being hosted in Johannesburg that year, it would be a symbol of racial solidarity that would inspire the country to come together.
We then see several training montages, along with clips of Mandela stepping out of important meetings to watch rugby and find out what’s happening. I’m supposed to be inspired by a country’s leader putting all of his chips on this one longshot table? Not to mention… did it really happen that way? Really? I have a feeling that in the interest of time, Eastwood cut out all the clips of Mandela being a responsible leader of South Africa, and left in all the clips of him cheering for the rugby team. Perhaps I’m merely ignorant of my South African history, but there appears to be at least one dimension of the Mandela character missing. Also missing are the rules of rugby, which are never explicitly explained– which I can only imagine is why the film only has so-so box office odds, since most Americans don’t know how to play rugby. Eastwood shoots the rugby in a series of close-ups and slow motion shots, as if to say, “You don’t need to know what’s going on, just know that people get hit hard!”
I can’t blame Freeman, whose part is limited to serious looks and rugby cheers, or Damon, whose part is limited solely to serious looks. I could blame the hacky, faux-inspiring script by Anthony Peckham. However, Eastwood has now shown over the course of his last couple of films that he is content to take a weak, presumably first-draft script and shoot it as is, as if the characters and dialogue don’t matter as much the symbolism and the cinematography. Certainly the cinematography is up to the usual Eastwood standard, and the symbolism is poured on thick as maple syrup. This is better than the atrocity that was Gran Torino, although that’s setting the bar pretty low for someone who is consistently in Academy Award talks despite the level of work being not nearly up to snuff. I can’t hate Eastwood for doing what he’s doing though. If I knew that critics and Academy voters will drool over any film I do, as long as there’s some symbolism and pretty pictures involved, I’d snag the first draft of any script I find and crank it out as quickly as possible too.