Morgan Freeman, in 'Invictus'

Dir. Clint Eastwood
(2009, PG-13, 133 min)
★ ★

The combination of director Clint Eastwood, stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, and subject matter as inherently full of import as the end of South African Apartheid creates high expectations that Invictus falls well under. It would be a disappointment even from a lesser filmmaker; that it comes from the man who made Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima we can only regard with a baffled shrug.

Where is Eastwood in this film? In his best work — and even in a more minor achievement like Changeling — he’s minimal in his style, telling stories without elaborate technique but profound in their effect. Yet here is a film of overbearing sentimentality and bombast. Characters give speeches about destiny and hope and courage. Nelson Mandela (Freeman) is made a simplified, sainted figure, whom we’re told is a mere mortal but only to make us admire him more vigorously. It all builds to the Big Game against the Unbeatable Rivals, and there’s a long, long stretch of slow-motion footage of characters waiting to see if the kick will be good. Then we cheer! Home team wins! Racism over!

Who made this? Really the Eastwood of Mystic River?

The film is set at the beginning of Mandela’s presidency, when he makes the unpopular decision to support the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team and a symbol of white oppression, believing the once-divisive sport will unite the country. The team captain is François Pienaar (Damon), who has a casually racist father but is soon inspired by Mandela’s perseverance to try to win the World Cup despite overwhelming odds. The story sporadically cuts to the experiences of a young black boy, perhaps to give us an outside perspective of Mandela’s leadership, but the character isn’t developed well enough to offer a meaningful point of view.

I didn’t learn very much about rugby. I wasn’t familiar with the sport, and now only know that you can pass the ball sideways or backwards, but never forwards. We don’t get much more insight than that during the brief snippets of games we’re shown along the way, so there’s not much to go on by the time we get to the climactic match, which played to me like a arbitrary sequence of scrums, tackles, and kicks. Mandela learns the final results of the previous matches for the mighty New Zealand team, and judging from those the final game seems to be a very low-scoring one, but nothing is made of this. Just the oohs and aahs of spectators who watch as one team takes the lead, then the other, and so on.

There are shots of blacks and whites watching from bars and homes around the country with equal fan fervor. Mandela’s uncomfortably integrated security team is united in their national pride. The aforementioned black child listens to the radio with white police officers. The message seems to be that fandom cures social ills, reducing South Africa’s sociopolitical conflicts to lazy sports cliches. If only the aliens of District 9 had known: racial harmony was just a ball game away.