Morgan Freeman delivers an astoundingly good performance as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, the latest from director Clint Eastwood. The film appears on the way to greatness at the beginning, with Mandela dealing with the difficulties of being South Africa’s first black president. Unfortunately, the film goes off track and, by its underwhelming sporting event finale, has completely lost focus.
The film starts with Mandela’s release from prison and a white rugby coach observing his motorcade and stating that this will be the day their country goes to the dogs. It’s a mighty opening scene, and Eastwood follows it with effective moments, including Mandela telling his new staff that everybody, regardless of skin color and political background, will have a chance to work in his administration. He hires white bodyguards to stand beside his black bodyguards, declaring, “The rainbow nation starts here … reconciliation starts here. Forgiveness starts here, too.” It’s powerful stuff.
Freeman looks very much like the man he is playing, and he nails the accent admirably. He has Mandela’s speaking pattern down, too, and the resemblance becomes even more amazing when he smiles.
Shortly after taking office, Mandela observes that the national rugby team, the Springboks, is having a bad season. Many black South Africans seek to have the team dismantled, viewing it as a symbol of apartheid. Mandela refuses to break up the team, instead offering his full support in the journey toward winning a World Cup title.
In the film, we see Mandela summoning the team captain, Francois Pienaar, played well by Matt Damon, to his office. This is where the movie begins to shift focus from the Mandela administration to Springbok’s trail to glory. Watching a ragtag group of guys become a formidable sports force, a formula repeated so many times in cinema, pales in comparison to the prospects of a focused Mandela biopic.
As the rugby matches take more prominence in the picture, the Mandela role is reduced to a lot of quick, cutesy scenes of him watching games on television or from the stands. History shows that the team did make a miracle run with Mandela’s support, and that certainly merits a place in the movie. But I can’t help but wish the rugby element were more secondary in the film and that we got to see more of the political unrest and issues Mandela faced in his first days as a world leader.
One of the problems for American audiences will be getting emotionally involved in rugby matches, a sport the majority of us probably don’t care about or understand. Eastwood doesn’t take much time explaining the rules or mechanics of the game, so the long shots of men scrumming have little dramatic tension. Just a bunch of guys groaning a lot and practically standing still while pushing on each other. So, as a sports movie, it’s actually kind of dull. I’m not even sure a rugby enthusiast would be impressed.
Eastwood’s filming of the matches, especially the final World Cup match, is elongated by too many slow motion shots of the crowd cheering, as if he’s trying to pad his running time. Yes, he’s trying to show both whites and blacks getting engaged in the proceedings, but it gets to the point of overkill. And Mandela’s role in the movie continues to become more and more of a background thing.
The film’s most jarringly bad moment occurs when Damon’s character returns home with tickets for the world match, and he has an extra one for his family’s black maid. The camera lingers on the woman’s appreciative smiling face in a manner that I found insulting to the audience. A moment when an airline pilot shows extraordinary team spirit is handled almost equally badly.
There were the makings of a masterpiece here, and Mandela’s story is one that desperately needs to be told in a movie. Invictus dodges a huge chunk of that story in the end and takes its place alongside many mediocre sports movies.