Mark Reviews Movies


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, Marguerite Wheatley, Leleti Khumalo, Patrick Lyster, Penny Downie, Sibongile Nojila

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Running Time: 2:14

Release Date: 12/11/09

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 10, 2009

Morgan Freeman dominates every scene of Invictus he is in with a quiet, reserved wisdom that few actors can command. Freeman has no booming speeches or other such Actorly moments as former South African President Nelson Mandela, and why should one expect him to in the first place? What he does here is much more difficult, controlling each and every moment with soft tones and an internal passion that reveals itself in his eyes, his calm, collected speech patterns, and definitive times of reflection during which we can sense where his mind is.

Indeed, it is this spirit of thoughtfulness and peaceful restraint that sets the tone for the rest of the film, and it's a tone that is much needed in the face of Anthony Peckham's script, which hammers home its point of racial harmony within South Africa as the result of the country's 1995 Rugby World Cup victory every chance it gets.

It's not that I don't believe the argument or that I don't appreciate how Invictus only mildly concerns rugby and finds something bigger outside of the typical formula of a sports movie. It's just that the scenes outside from Mandela's statements of his belief that the people of his country could stand united as South Africans in spite of its apartheid history and the formulation of a plan to use a primarily white rugby team to help achieve this goal in spite of the majority of the country's initial desire to rid the nation of a vestige of those ugly times are pretty simplistic.

Mandela is the only character Peckham develops. His other characters seem merely pawns, staying in place for a while, but we know they will have to eventually move forward toward showing Peckham's end result.

That's why establishing Mandela's philosophy of forgiveness and unity early on is so important. It's also why Freeman's singular performance of inhabiting those principles helps elevate the film beyond its foregone conclusion and the almost ham-fisted way Peckham and director Clint Eastwood stage the players and the circumstances to get there.

The film opens in 1990 with Mandela's release from prison after almost 30 years behind bars and quickly moves past events until his election to President in 1994. While the minority white population's fears escalates, economic pressures rise, and the new democratic South Africa enters the world stage, Mandela is drawn to the Springboks, the national rugby team, who will compete in the World Cup for the first time with the tournament set in South Africa.

The team, seen as an unnecessary remnant of apartheid, is generally despised by the majority of the country, who automatically cheer for the opposition if they bother to pay it any mind at all. Mandela wants to help quell some fears and argues in the Springboks defense. He invites the team's captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, like the rest of the supporting cast, not given much to work with) to tea and, without stating it, tells Pienaar what needs to be done: The Springboks must win the World Cup.

Peckham barely touches upon the sport. There is no mandatory scene where a character goes through the rules of the game, although we learn a few tidbits (Players can only pass the ball backwards and sideways, and matches last for 80 minutes). A member of Mandela's security team watches without a clue about what's happening and, in the end, has to be told that the Springboks won.

I admire the fact that the film almost ignores the playing of rugby, except to the point that Eastwood needs to show brief segments of a match here and there just so we know it's being played. In doing so, the film can instead focus its energy on how the team's rise from failures to champions affect those caught up in it.

Mandela's security team, comprised of his own men and former members of the secret police that at one time persecuted him and those against the old way of life in South Africa, begins to work (and, in one scene, play rugby) together. Pienaar's father openly criticizes Mandela but eventually allows the family servant to accompany them to the World Cup final. The crowd at Mandela's first appearance at a rugby match is full of cheers, deafening jeers, and a single cup thrown at him, and by the final, the crowd chants his name. The team is skeptical of Mandela's hands-on approach to their activities outside of playing, like going to the slums to teach children how to play and learning the words to the new national anthem, but ultimately find their lessons rewarding and belt out "God bless Africa" with the rest of the crowd.

The characters outside of Mandela are treated as side notes, which lessens the personal connection to the film's ultimate message and makes the steps to arrive there seem forced. Eastwood eliminates all subtlety in an unbearably extended slow-motion climax that meshes the final game (of a sport we have spent the entire film believing is superfluous to the story) with cheering throngs in the stadium and around the country.

The film does these things, and yet Invictus works. It overcomes the heavy-handed means of reaching its goal. It's simply because Freeman believes every word and owns every sentiment that the Mandela of the film expounds, and we believe it right along with him.

Copyright 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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