I enjoy glorious, papery fossil Clint Eastwood behind the camera as much as in front of it. His style is calm without being ponderous, and unfussy without being artless. So you’d expect him to bring the right kind of gravitas to the subject of the South African 1995 Rugby World Cup, which for many signalled the true end of apartheid in a once divided country. The result is Invictus, a movie that is as solid as a rock and slightly more interesting than the average documentary, laced with performances that would have seemed like perfect Oscar bait if it wasn’t for their understated, ostensibly accurate nature. I’m not sure why Hollywood had to make this movie, but I’m cautiously glad of its existence. Which is roughly how I feel about Stonehenge, or Ke$ha’s song Tik Tok.
Morgan Freeman, one of the few people to have a voice that sounds edible, plays Nelson Mandela, and he’s had a pretty convincing performance wrangled out of him, presenting Mandela in a way that feels human and real, in spite of the gargantuan weight of the role. Matt Damon snatches second billing as South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, and he also takes a considered approach to characterisation. The scenes in which the two interact are some of the best, and although Damon’s part could have been played by many other actors, I cannot think of another person better suited to channelling Mandela than Morgan Freeman.
Here is my inevitable digest of the plot: Mandela is released after his years of incarceration, runs for and wins the presidency of a democratised South Africa in ’94, realises that the deep wounds of the country can perhaps be fixed by something as simple as a sporting event, and then goes about engineering a truce between the white and black civilians that involves supporting the Springboks on their 1995 Rugby World Cup campaign. He ropes in the help of Pienaar, and the film shows these two as the only ones who ultimately believe in the unifying power of sport whilst those on both sides express doubt in varying degrees. If you have any idea about the history behind the film, or you understand how Hollywood narratives work, you’ll already know the ending. Getting there involves sitting through a well formed but excessively glossy tale.
I’ve been assured by some rugby loving friends that the set piece remakes of the actual matches are quite laughable, and you can definitely tell that Mr Damon, although shaped roughly like a rugby player, does not fill Francois Pienaar’s 6’3” shadow with his 5’10” frame. For most people who lack an appreciation for the finer points of the sport, this isn’t really an issue, and the games themselves play only a small role in the film.
Aside from the interaction between Freeman and Damon, the supremely akward mixing of white and black security teams who are charged with protecting Mandela creates some of the film’s finer moments. It’s almost enough to make you forget the slightly schmaltzy sequence in which Pienaar and the team visit the prison where Mandela spent many years, which Eastwood overeggs with shots of a ghostly Freeman performing hard labour and wistful philosophising in an unnecessary interpretation of what Pienaar must have been imagining. The claustrophobic nature of Mandela’s actual prison cell is poignant enough on its own.
Invictus is a film that is propelled by the weight of history, and only remains interesting because the events it depicts actually occurred. Without this it might be considered to be a fairly bland drama that is neither entirely political nor particularly dramatic. However, it has been constructed with care, and its ride through the 1995 Rugby World Cup is smooth and predictable, which is comforting in its way.