Movie Review: Invictus- A Highly Undeveloped Sports Drama Manipulative in Technique Rather than Through a Well Constructed Narrative

If there is one film this academy award season that will make you think it deserves an award but doesn’t is truly Clint Eastwood’s highly undeveloped sports drama Invictus. All of the variables to a great film are present from the acclaimed director himself to Morgan Freeman in the role only he should be playing as Nelson Mandela yet there is something missing from the equation. The film never moves past a surface level of the history, presenting to you what happened rather than making you feel what happened along with each of the characters. The racial animosity isn’t potent and it’s treated rather blandly or as the joke of a dialogue quip in a scene. The Rugby scenes, a sport known for its brutal physicality, only broach the technicalities and not to mention they are the least moving segments of sports drama that will ever be experienced on the big screen. Invictus as a whole is jarringly anti-climactic treating every plot development or challenge to each character’s struggles as assumptions rather than exploring their depth allowing us to struggle with them. It’s not a bad film but it is a film that is blatantly manipulative and unsurprisingly historically inaccurate since it is based on John Carlin’s historically inaccurate book “Playing the Enemy.” This “hearts and minds” inspiration tale of Mandela attempting to unite a country through sports lacks the depth, ingenuity, and directorial delivery that one would expect from an accomplished director such as Eastwood and is quite forgettable once you leave the theater.

Normally forgettable is not associated with the work of Clint Eastwood especially since the acclaim for his western masterpiece Unforgiven in the early 90s. But that is the only word that can be ascribed to Invictus since it doesn’t go into depth at all into some complex racial, moral, and personal issues. Its potential was unquestionable and the disappointment is how this veteran filmmaker, along with two very good actors, could drop the ball on this hand given possibility and lack the narrative depth that some first time filmmakers sometimes miss. The film opens up with a montage updating the audience of the release of Nelson Mandela, a great performance from Morgan Freeman who handles the tricky South African accent well, from prison and his steady election win as president of the Republic of South Africa. As impersonal as montages can be the film never really extends passed just a really long look at events instead of digging into their individual significance or their relative importance to the story. Mandela realizes that the Afrikaaners, the whites in South Africa, adore their rugby team the Springboks despite their team being quite horrid and below average. Using this cultural symbol Mandela requests from the Captain of the South African rugby team Francois Pienaar, a surprising performance from Matt Damon who also flaunts a great version of the South African accent, to lead his team and inspire them to change and become the World Cup winners. From here Invictus is your typical sports team inspiration tale yet even in a harsher environment of racial tension doesn’t even come close to Remember the Titans nor does it get as inspirational or heart moving as Rudy.

The complexities of winning over a nation’s hearts and minds can be an intricate narrative and a veteran filmmaker such as Eastwood failing to show those complexities is proof that it’s a difficult task to take on. There’s no question as to the ability of this director nor his crew for the film looks great but looking good and actually being a good film are quite different elements. The irony in the title Invictus is that it translates to “invincible,” and the film couldn’t be further from that description. If the film’s intention is to get the audience present in the inspiration that occurs on screen than the film fails on all counts for it never ignites a feeling and rather just has a series of sequences portraying what happened. Each difficult subject the film, such as Mandela’s family problems or Pienaar’s difficulties of uniting and leading his team to victory, is assumed as something that happens rather than moving past the surface of the issue. The film appears to be something of beauty and, of course, beauty is only skin deep. Everything from personality to depth is lost in this sports drama that will just disappoint the audience in the end. It is definitely a “feel good” film, one with mild moments of humor and good acting that might satisfy an audience’s ticket price, but the film fails to move beyond the standard.

What is even more frustrating about the film is the blatant manipulative filming style and editing tricks designed to make it seem as though the film is better than it actually is. As the last rugby match is coming to its “exciting” conclusion a good 10 plus minutes are done in slow motion. This nauseating experience is more than just in your face but it is beyond confusing. If you have little to no knowledge of rugby and its technical rules you will have no clue what is occurring in these visually repetitive moments and even if you do know the technicalities of rugby it’s not done in a very moving way. At least the final match begins to get into the rough and brutal physical nature of the sport rather than just showing the match in as interesting a fashion as being an uninterested spectator. There is an immense amount of technical camera work and grandiose music that is trying to distract you from the lousy undeveloped story and the potential it could have been by making you think it’s there. Some audiences will fall for its stylistic choice but most will realize the film is failing their expectations for a great story on the subject of unifying a country.

Any fans of Clint Eastwood will be greatly disappointed in his new film Invictus that offers more technical beauty than it does inspirational reflection. There are some good performances from Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon but beyond that there isn’t much to marvel at this shallow story of racial animosity, the unification of a country, and the struggles of leading. If this script were resembled by a pool we’d be standing in the shallow end the entire time never venturing into the depth this story has the potential of conveying. This film spoon feeds you its message rather than allowing the audience to experience the message and interpret it themselves, a quality that is despicable in any film let alone a product from a talented director such as Eastwood. If this film were to win any awards or be considered of such an honor would be quite telling of how such films are picked, more on their politics rather than their quality of film presentation. The only award Invictus deserves is probably the best mediocre film of the year award, and that should tell you all you’ll need to know.

Grade: C+

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