Ever since his 1992 Oscar-winning triumph Unforgiven pushed him into the realm of great American filmmakers, Eastwood has been on a pretty remarkable creative streak. Sure, there have been a few bumps in the road, such as last year’s Changeling, 1999’s True Crime and 2002’s Blood Work. More often than not though, the Man from Malpaso has been consistently turning out solid, sometimes great, directorial efforts over the past two decades.
Invictus falls somewhere in between. While it’s a film from the 79-year old that keeps you entertained from start to finish, it’s also one that could have been so much more.
Based on the novel by John Carlin, Invictus is set in South Africa during the first half of the 1990s. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, chronicles the efforts of newly-elected president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) to unify his country through sports, in particular Rugby. The only problem is that the national team, captained by Francois Piennar (Matt Damon), is a bit of a joke. In fact, when Mandela gets his unification idea, the team downright stinks. With their work cut out for him, backed by a little bit of inspiration from Mandela, Piennar and his team become determined to make it to the 1995 World Rugby Cup while helping Mandela lift his country above the crime and apartheid that still plagues it.
The film’s debits certainly do not lie in the subject matter: the effort of a political prisoner-turned-president to unify a country torn apart by racism and crime through a second-rate national rugby team? You would be hard-pressed to find better material to make an underdog story from. It is also not the fault of the solid cast, led by two strong turns by Freeman and Damon (both handle the tricky South African accent very well), whose performances keep us engaged throughout.
The blame lies with Anthony Peckham’s screenplay and Eastwood’s directing, both which get the work done but do so disappointingly. Plenty of material worth developing is hinted at: Mandela’s family troubles, the struggle of Piennar to motivate his team and unite the fans, South Africa’s continuing troubles after Mandela takes office, etc. But that is it. These ideas are brought up, but rarely developed or further examined. And if you are unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Rugby, you can also forget about getting an overview here (apparently, the sport was explained in the film but the scene was cut). The well-shot finale is somewhat exciting, but I had no idea as to what the hell was going on.
Eastwood’s directing takes the story competently from point A to B to C, but it is done in such (forgive the expression) black-and-white terms that while the viewer might find themselves enjoying the movie as it plays out, they will be hard pressed to remember anything memorable afterwards. I would expect this type of directing from the likes of a younger, newer filmmaker, but not one as seasoned as Eastwood. Then again, I have always said that a director’s work can only be as good as the screenplay that they are given to work from.
Invictus certainly is no Changeling or Absolute Power, but then again it is no Letters From Iwo Jima, Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby. If you are looking for a rudimentary sports drama with nothing terribly deep or depressing attached to it for your holiday viewing, you could do far worse than this film. But if you are looking for an inspiring underdog tale with some meat on its storytelling bones, you would be advised to look someplace else.
– Shawn Fitzgerald