This is a movie that should have worked. After all, it’s got all those crowd-pleasing, made-for-the-Oscars ingredients: Uplifting sports biopic showcasing a little known—and fascinating—piece of recent history. Clint Eastwood directing. Morgan Freeman trilling his Rs and channeling Nelson Mandela. Matt Damon trilling his Rs and running around in shorts—and a prosthetic nose.
But seeing Invictus is an exercise in watching two films battle it out on the big screen: The one that Eastwood perhaps really wanted to make—a newly elected Mandela struggles to lead a country wounded by its bloody past—and the one that he settled for—a more commercially-friendly sports flick.
Invictus, for all its good intentions, fabulous casting and fascinating subject matter, never quite manages to transcend the eye-rolling clichés of the genre: Down on its luck rugby team, pilloried for its losing streak, digs deep to find out that, yes-they-can-in-fact-yes-we-all-can-so-let’s-create-change-that-all-of-South Africa-can-believe-in. Rugby, normally the sport of Afrikaners and viewed by South African blacks as the oppressor’s sport, suddenly becomes the great unifier. Watch former enemies, black and white, white and black, embrace as they cheer on their team. Never mind that in real life, South Africa’s a vastly complicated country inhabited by folks of all hues and stripes, including its sizable Coloured population. In Eastwood’s world, everything exists in a strict, black/white paradigm.
“This is it! This is our destiny!” Damon, as team captain, exhorts his teammates.
Watching the trailers, it’s easy to walk away with the assumption that this is yet another civil rights-ish biopic where black history gets rewritten so that the Great White Hope can save the day. While Invictus commits many biopic sins, it thankfully doesn’t commit that of racial revisionism.
Instead, Damon’s rugby-playing Francois Pienaar serves as the tool of the black man—Mandela—who uses him to further his own agenda: Racial reconciliation in the barely post-apartheid 1990s. And Invictus would have been a much more interesting film had it stuck to Mandela’s machinations.
This is a rare misstep for Eastwood, who’s usually the master of subtlety, nuance and unanswered questions. It’s as if the international subject matter made him all squirmy and so, in a clinch, he resorted to by-the-rules filmmaking.
Which is too bad, because Mandela, as played by Freeman, is a fully fleshed-out portrait of the revolutionary hero as a new president. Yes, Freeman’s grasp of the Mandela accent is flimsy at best—he flips between the South African brogue and his own, laid-back Southern inflections, sometimes in one word. Despite that, Freeman’s Mandela is a complicated man, strong-willed yet physically frail, cunning, calculating, a warm and caring employer, a lonely man separated from his famous wife—and a flirt who extols the virtue of monogamy while wistfully wishing that he had the options of his polygamous father.
Damon’s Pienaar, on the other hand, isn’t painted with the same nuances. In Eastwood’s hands, he’s a cipher. We never really understand what motivates him. (Beyond wanting to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, that is.) We see Pienaar at home with his racist family, listening to them kvetch about race relations. (“They’re going to take our jobs and drive us into the sea.”) But how does he feel about the changes roiling his country? We aren’t privy to his inner workings. And so, as the film vacillates between his story and Mandela’s story and then their story, the parts always feel greater than its sum. The movie plods along, hitting predictable plot points until it gets to the ending, which is exactly where you knew it was heading in the first place.
Cue swelling music.
About that swelling music: Eastwood so clearly doesn’t trust his audience to get it that he bludgeons viewers with cringe-inducing lyrics to accompany said music: “It’s not just a game … Hear me say … I stand up for my friends… I’m colorblind.”
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.