For an octogenarian it’s truly admirable how Clint Eastwood continues to churn out film after film, often managing multiple pictures a year. Most of his dramas have proven popular with audiences and a few disappointments aside, have real critical merit. In effect he’s one of those rare few in Hollywood that have managed super-stardom both as an actor and behind the camera as well. To follow up his “Dirty Harry” homage, the much lauded “Gran Torino,” Eastwood turned to a South-African true story for inspiration: Based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Changed a Nation,” the film tells of the immediate post-Apartheid era and the newly elected president’s efforts to unite his divided country.
Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) sees his triumph in rugby, the Springbock team seen as a symbol of white superiority and something most black South-African’s would be glad to see the back of. As the rugby World Cup is due to take place in the country, Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) is determined not to let an opportunity like this to transcend the racial tensions pass and is eager to see the hitherto underachieving national side triumph. Thus he turns to the team’s captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon), lending him encouragement, inspiration and one or two pieces of sound advice. The film follows their relationship as well as that of the president’s bodyguards that must also learn to look beyond their prejudice and suspicion of their co-workers and collaborate to protect the president at the rugby matches. Considering the choices, there was only ever going to be one man to play Nelson Mandela: Morgan Freeman’s trademark is that of a peaceful-soul with a God-like narrative tones, one he’s been perfecting since “The Shawshank Redemption.” It’s a perfect match and Freeman is the heart and soul of the picture and the subsequent Oscar nomination was well deserved indeed.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Damon’s role even if the acting is not at fault (he too was nominated). It’s the character of Pienaar that remains sorely underdeveloped throughout as he’s given far too little exposition. Instead he’s reduced to giving rather run-of-the-mill pep-talks and a lot of contemplative stares into space. This immediately makes the film falter as Mandela is no longer the focus come the lengthy final match sequence. Some of the sports action is well captured by Eastwood’s lens, the players colliding with full force and the crunching scrums are spectacular but the games lack a narrative arc and ultimately fail to thrill as they should. Some of the spectator shots and a rather out-of-place aeroplane sequence betray some clumsy digital effects wizardry. Sadly, Eastwood’s faithfulness to the events come at a cost and the viewer will yearn simply to hear Freeman’s reassuring overtones again. Those qualms aside, it’s the portrayal of the security guards that succeed in transmitting the eventual reconciliation when the montages threaten to descend into the utterly predictable. The troupe allow Eastwood not only some comic relief but a powerful platform to turn a forced collaboration into friendship and thus the true unification of South Africa.
The music of Clint Eastwood’s films continue to be a matter for debate. An avid jazz fan, Eastwood sometimes composes himself or else hands the duties to his son Kyle Eastwood and collaborator Michael Stevens. As with “Letters From Iwo Jima,” the latter has been the case here but unfortunately the restrained, minimalist style employed by both continues to be the weakest link in the Eastwood cannon. The soundtrack for “Invictus” is largely built around source songs that enhance the African elements of the story, including among others “World in Union ’95” which, based on a melody by Gustav Holst plays over the end credits. What little score there is, gets lost on the album and really contains only one cue of note – Madiba’s Theme – a hymn-based piece fused with humming vocals and Eastwood’s signature lingering piano. In sum, the score simply cannot muster enough inspiration that the film calls for and while blatant heroism isn’t required, there’s no evidence here that a world cup could actually be won. Considering the great “African” scores that Hollywood composers have written, it’s a shame that Eastwood couldn’t simply have hired someone more up to the task.
It’s all too rare (sadly) that a film about Africa can be so uplifting. Of course, because of a rugby game, South Africa did not become a paragon of peaceful co-existence but “Invictus” provides hope. Morgan Freeman is sublime as Mandela and proves once again he is at the very pinnacle of acting prowess. If only the script could have been a little sharper and less predictable, this could have been one of the Clint greats.
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