© 2009 Ray Wong
Based on a true story as described in John Carlin's nonfiction book, Invictus (Latin meaning "invincible"), tells the story of Nelson Mandela's effort to unite his country through sports.
The story begins with Nelson Mandela's (Morgan Freeman) release from prison, during a time when South Africa remains deeply divided because of apartheid. Mandela's eventual historical win as President further unsettles his country where a minority of whites control the majority of blacks. His victory comes with intense scrutiny, indifference and anger. Whites are fearful of the future, where retaliation is possible. South African blacks feel they've been vindicated, and they want revenge on the whites who persecuted them.
Instead, Mandela believes the only way to rebuild the country is to put aside all the anger and hurt and finger-pointing and work together, that they can't fight racism and apartheid with more prejudice and segregation. For example, he deliberately includes whites in his secret service team. When he hears that the sports council wants to dissolve the losing Springbok, their national rugby team (rugby is mostly a "white" sports in South Africa), he decides a different tactic is in order. Instead, he invites team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) for a chat. It seems that Mandela believes a great way to unite the country is by uniting them through rugby.
Morgan Freeman (The Dark Knight) is the perfect choice to play Mandela -- even the President himself said only Freeman could play him. Both got their wishes. Freeman embodies Mandela's mannerisms and spirit and gives us an earnest performance of an earnest man. However, Freeman falls a bit short of completely disappearing in the role, as he's simply too well-known. The similarities between the two men are actually distractions. At times, I'm not sure if Freeman is playing Mandela, or whether he's playing Morgan Freeman playing Mandela.
Matt Damon (The Informant) shed his excess weight and gained muscles to play Francois Pienaar, a towering, rugged athlete in real life. Damon has to project himself bigger than life while coming off as down to earth and personable. It's not easy. In a way, Damon is probably too gentle and quiet, even though that may be who Pienaar is in real life; but on the big screen, we expect more personality. His accent is also uneven. In truth, Damon seems more of a minor character -- Freeman dominates the film, as expected.
The support cast is comprised of mostly unknown South African and British actors: Tony Kgoroge (Blood Diamond) as Mandela's chief security Jason Tshabalala, Patrick Mofokeng (Man to Man) as Linga Moonsamy, Matt Stern (District 9) as Hendrick Booyens, and Julian Lewis Jones (Torchwood) as Etienne Feyder, and Adjoa Andoh (Doctor Who) as Mendela's right-hand woman, Brenda.
Written by Anthony Peckham (Sherlock Holmes) who is South African, the screenplay seamlessly combines the socio-political and sports aspects of the story, using one to reflect on the other. In many ways, it's a perfect juxtaposition -- there are plenty of parallels between politics and sports. Racism is, of course, front and center. For the most part, the themes of racial tension are riveting and relevant. At times, however, they become heavy-handed. Peckham also glosses over many the deeply divisive matters. Certain parts of the film, while "inspirational," seem forced, contrived and too rose-colored.
The predictability serves the film well as a sports flick, but lacks gravitas and substance in terms of the deep-rooted racism and social inequality in South Africa. In that sense, the film focuses too much on the "feel good" factor, making light of the real social, economical, and political problems Mandela faced. At the end, it feels too light, no matter how rousing the ending may dictate.
Director Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino) is skillful in balancing the drama and action. The first half of the film is particularly interesting as we navigate through Mandela's plight in his first term as the first black president of a greatly divided country. But as the film progresses and the focus rests on the Springbok's effort to win the World Cup, the film becomes bogged down by many of the sports film cliches. That's when the message becomes heavy-handed, the rousing musical score and the slow-motion action sequences typical of the genre. Mandela also becomes a backdrop. The crowd-pleasing final reel is predictable and entertaining, but it lacks the emotional punches we've come to expect.
Invictus is not a bad film. In fact, it's skillfully put together with good performances. It's entertaining and gives us some insight of the time and historical background of the real story. But invictus is est non.
Stars: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Marguerite Wheatley, Leleti Khumalo
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Anthony Peckham (based on John Carlin's book)
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.7 out of 10