By all rights, “Invictus” should have been a runaway hit. It had big star power in Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, director Clint Eastwood, and some contemporary relevance. As the 2010 World Cup gets underway in South Africa, the film deals with another World Cup series held in that country--the 1995 championship matches for rugby. Freeman and Damon were Oscar nominees, and two-time winner Eastwood’s name on a film guarantees a certain amount of box office success.
So why did the movie, now available on video, not make a bigger splash? It’s a “feel good” flick along the lines of, say, “The Blind Side”: a sports film that dwells on racial tension and how it is overcome on a personal level. But it’s about a sport about which Americans know relatively little, and, not to put too fine a point on it, it telegraphs the outcome way too early. Eastwood’s less-is-more style, usually so compelling, gets in the way a bit here, as he leaves us largely uniformed about the sport’s rules and action.
In a sense, we don’t need to know much, since the story primarily concerns getting past historic racial divisions and distrust. It opens with the release from 30 years of imprisonment of Nelson Mandela (Freeman) and his subsequent ascent to the presidency. As he walks into his new office, he encounters a stream of white employees emptying their desks and removing their belongings. He quickly moves to reassure them that their jobs are secure, but screenwriter Anthony Peckham, working with John Carlin’s book, has established the hostility and uncertainty accompanying the end of apartheid.
And it’s not just the whites: Mandela’s bodyguards, friends, and family are stunned that he wants to keep around him the very people they blame for perpetuating the injustices he has protested against. Assuring them that this is no time for revenge, Mandela emphasizes that only reconciliation can save the country from splitting apart.
He makes the point even more dramatically when he invites Francois Pienaar (Damon), the captain of the Springboks rugby team, to his office. For rugby, a “hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen,” is the acknowledged preserve of white Afrikaaners; blacks--as the movie repeatedly emphasizes--have football (i.e. soccer), a “gentlemen’s sport played by hooligans.” He calls on the somewhat reluctant Pienaar to win the World Cup by being an inspirational leader.
The rest of the film focuses on the two men’s efforts to heal and, at least temporarily, unite the country, one through politics, the other through sport. At one point, Pienaar visits the tiny cell where Mandela was held, marveling that he could have forgiven the people who put him there. Mirroring Mandela’s plight, he has to overcome the objections of his teammates and family. Oh, yeah, and he has to figure out how to beat the heavily-favored New Zealand side to win the championship.
The movie has several fine moments, in particular one where the Springboks teach a bunch of black kids how to play rugby. Similarly, the video includes a nice extra outlining how the rugby neophyte Damon learned to play the sport from, among others, the real Francois Pienaar.
“Invictus” has a lot going for it, though it fails to rise to the level of other Eastwood films. Rated “PG-13,” the movie should appeal to a fairly broad audience, and it would be a fine history lesson for people of any age.