by Matt Fagerholm
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It’s difficult to imagine an awards season without Clint Eastwood. Ever since 2003’s Mystic River, he’s released all of his directorial efforts during the last months of the year. Sometimes his films deserve to be contenders (Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima), and sometimes they don’t. Invictus is Eastwood’s most unimaginative Oscar bait yet. Morgan Freeman is the perfect actor to play Nelson Mandela…too perfect, in fact. There must be countless great actors, unknown to mainstream moviegoers, who could’ve knocked this role out of the park. Freeman is certainly one of our great actors, but he’s played this type of wise, contemplative, larger-than-life role so often that it’s become a cliche. When he played God in Bruce Almighty, the casting seemed inevitable. That may be why Mandela couldn’t think of any actor to play himself onscreen, other than Freeman.
Everything about Invictus feels too safe, too calculated, too polished for prestige. It follows President Mandela during his initial five years out of prison, as he serves his first term in office while working to unite the people of South Africa. The film doesn’t bother to explain “apartheid” to younger viewers, opting for Mandela’s philosophy that “the past is the past.” There’s not much racial tension onscreen, except for the droll awkwardness between Mandela’s black and white bodyguards. Eastwood settles into the familiar structure of an inspirational sports movie, as Mandela gets the entire nation to rally behind the Springbok rugby team, which stood (for many citizens) as a reminder of their recent bloody past. This theme of unity is the most powerful (and resonant) aspect of the picture, yet it is troubling that so many films set in devastated parts of the world rely on a game to make them uplifting (Slumdog Millionaire is another example).
Freeman’s performance is witty and nicely subdued, though he never really disappears into the character (his lip posturing and hair style are all too obvious). Equally distracting is the fake nose on Matt Damon, who plays Springbok captain Francois Pienaar. I knew nothing about rugby going in to the film, and I knew even less coming out. According to the film’s incoherent rugby scenes, the sport looks like a mix of football, soccer, cheerleading and a game of hot potato. The last act is entirely devoted to the 1995 Rugby World Cup championship game, where Eastwood relies far too heavily on slow motion and reaction shots to build suspense. There’s also two jarringly unnecessary songs by the South Africa vocal group Overtone, which seem to be in the film for no purpose other than to provide filler for the Best Song category.
That all being said, Invictus does offer an intriguing glimpse into Mandela’s political strategies, as he risks alienating his base in order to achieve unity (drawing some provocative parallels to Obama in the process). The film is named after a poem written by William Ernest Henley, which Mandela had written on a scrap of paper during his twenty-seven year incarceration. There’s a quietly moving moment when Pienaar visits Mandela’s former cell, as Freeman recites the poem, reminding us that he is still one of the few living actors capable of evoking the depths of the human soul. Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life is clearly an ideal subject to tackle on film, and Invictus functions as an agreeable starting point. Now it’s time for the Mandela biopic that doesn’t rely on big names or the “big game” to get butts in the seats. That one might even be Oscar-worthy.
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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