Hollywood. A film concept is being pitched:
Exec: “OK, I got five words for ya: Morgan Freeman is … Nelson Mandela!”
Producer: [Framing imaginary scene with hands] “Of course! The man. The enigma. The zebra print shirts. What’s the title?”
E: [Raises fist to the sky for dramatic effect] “Invictus!”
P: [Impressed] “In-vic-tus. Kid, I don't know what it means but it sounds classy as hell. Tell me more.”
E: “Clint Eastwood has signed up to direct – with Matt Damon as co-star!”
P: [Leaping from his chair] “It is literally gonna shit Oscars! Where do I sign?”
Believe it or not, this isn’t an accurate representation of how this new Clint Eastwood-helmed Mandela biopic found its way into cinemas. But after seeing it you might be forgiven for thinking otherwise. It smacks of a film made with the sole intention of winning awards. Based on the book Playing the Field by John Carlin, Invictus centres on Mandela soon after his election victory. With the euphoria of election success ebbing away, the new president was left with the harsh reality of trying to guide a post-apartheid South Africa into an uncertain future. White Afrikaners were distrustful of the new regime; the oppressed black population sought to remove any icons that symbolised the decades of subjugation.
With a country still so bitterly divided, Mandela’s genius was to recognise the unifying power of sport – specifically the national rugby team, the Springboks. Rugby was a predominantly white sport and, to the black population at least, was the embodiment of white prejudice. But Mandela realised that if he publicly backed the team, he could demonstrate that it was no longer a symbol of white supremacy, but a team to represent a new, united South Africa – a symbol of his “rainbow nation”. To guarantee this, he would need to inspire Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar (a mahusively pumped Matt Damon) to lead his under-achieving team to victory at the 1995 World Cup, which was being held in South Africa.
If it wasn’t based on a true story, it would probably be rejected for being too twee. And therein lies the problem. With a true story like this as your source material, what can a director really do with it? In Eastwood's case, not a lot. And in theory at least, that is the correct approach: let this inspiring tale of the fight to overcome prejudice through sporting endeavour tell itself. But despite its evocative subject matter, the movie still manages to lack any real drama. In fairness, Eastwood recognises this, but his attempt to ramp up the tension in the final act (with an unexpected terrorist threat before the final match) is cynical and ham-fisted. As a story it ticks all the boxes; as a film it falls flat.
Invictus’s fatal flaw is that it does not know what it wants to be. Firstly, it’s not primarily a sports movie. So while the actual rugby sequences are well shot (to a layperson, Damon certainly looks the part on the field and you certainly feel close to the action and those bone-crunching tackles), the decision not to include any notable commentary during the games means they lack any real excitement: why have the Springboks just been given another penalty? Who knows? Secondly, the film isn’t primarily an emotional drama about personal and political struggle and the battle to change hearts and minds: any attempt at character development is weak and clichéd, especially Mandela’s charming of Pienaar and the gentle thawing of relations between the mixed races of Mandela’s security team. A nod to Mandela’s turbulent relationship with his family feels tacked-on.
The performances, though, are reasonably solid. Damon, as Pienaar, is believable despite some god-awful “this is your destiny!” type dialogue. Freeman will win plaudits for his Mandela – but a cynic might say he’s actually too recogniseable as Morgan Freeman to really convince. Credit though to Tony Kgoroge as Mandela’s loyal head of security, Jason, and Adjoa Andoh as Brenda, his doting secretary. Invictus plays it too safe. Visually it’s mostly unexciting. Bizarre narrative decisions detract from the action sequences. And every boring sports movie cliché is thrown into the mix. Despite its emotional subject matter, it lacks any tangible dramatic tension. And where dramatic license has been taken it feels half-baked, and lacking in any real depth of feeling. It also fails to truly inspire, either as a tale of sporting achievement or one of social change. But while it will probably a contender come awards season, the awards will be for Mandela’s story, not for this film.