The film gives the impression that Mandela had little to do except offer benign encouragement to the almost all-white team (there was a single black player) while gently extolling the black majority of his nation to support the team. Prior to the end of apartheid, the rugby team was viewed as a symbol of the apartheid regime – to the point that many blacks traditionally rooted against them.
And that’s pretty much what “Invictus” is all about – Mandela gently prodding the team to work harder and play stronger while the once-fractured nation finds a way to common ground in cheering on the team. There is no spoiler in announcing the end result is telegraphed long before the film reaches its midway point.
But who was the nation rooting for? Outside of the team captain played by Matt Damon (sporting bleached blonde hair and a phony Afrikaaner accent) and the sole black player, it is hard to imagine what they are thinking – “Invictus” never gives the individual players any personality to stand out. Furthermore, the team often sneers at the racial harmony that Mandela is trying to instill; one scene, where the players refuse to learn the indigenous African language lyrics of the country’s new national anthem, suggests these guys were not deserving of any hero worship.
As Mandela, Morgan Freeman functions as a South African version of Charlie Chan, spouting fortune cookie-style wisdom in an appropriately wily manner that disarms the racial agitation of black and white foes alike. It is a one-dimensional caricature that reimagines Mandela as a sports-happy old codger, and the only attempt to give him depth comes in a fleeting reference to the failure of his marriage to Winnie Mandela.
As the team’s captain, Damon is little more than a buff mannequin who is carefully posed to represent the idealized post-apartheid white South African who is not terrified of black leadership. He manages to ignore the racist babble of his father and teammates, but he is too bland to inspire any admiration.
“Invictus” betrays all of the problems inherent to Eastwood’s directing efforts: a ponderously overlong production (the 134-minute film could easily have been trimmed by a half hour), murky cinematography (at one point, Damon is filmed in a shadowplay that makes him look like he’s sporting a black eye), a distracting out-of-place music score and a sense of clumsy self-importance that grows worse with each new reel.
The film also carefully obscures the significant failures of the Mandela presidency. Brief glimpses of headlines talking about rising crime rates and a visit by the rugby team to a ramshackle township offer a reminder that Mandela’s leadership skills could only achieve so much. Whenever these hiccups of reality permeate the film, it is easy to understand why Mandela’s staff was impatient with his focus on rugby and not the serious issues that dominated (and continue to impact) his country.
In the end, the 1995 rugby team’s achievement, not unlike a typical Hollywood movie, offered little more than an entertaining distraction to a dismal world. Sadly, “Invictus” offers little more than a dismal distraction.
2009, Rated PG-13, 134 minutes
Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon
Released by Warner Bros.