Though “Invictus” has elements of a biopic and a sports drama, it doesn’t belong to either of those categories. Its treatment of Nelson Mandela, the iconic South African president and anti-apartheid leader, is limited to one year of his life, and its treatment of the 1995 Rugby World Cup that brought the country together is just plain limited. This hybrid, pleasant and inoffensive though it is, offers neither the insight of a good biopic nor the elation of a good sports drama.
That’s a shame, too, considering how much potential the project had. Morgan Freeman bought the rights to John Carlin’s book, “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation,” and got his old friend Clint Eastwood to direct an adaptation. Even a humble guy like Freeman had to admit he was perfect to play Mandela himself. In addition to the physical resemblance, Freeman brings his dignified, grandfatherly persona to the role. Even if you’ve never given Nelson Mandela much thought before, you view him as a stern but loving authority figure once you hear Freeman is playing him.
And then there’s the sports angle. When Mandela was elected president in 1994, apartheid was over but South Africa was still deeply divided. Many of the country’s whites — the minority who’d been ruling for decades — feared that the blacks, now empowered, would seek revenge. Basically, they were afraid the blacks would mistreat them as badly as they’d mistreated the blacks. To many black South Africans, the national rugby team, the Springboks, represented the old regime, and it had become customary for blacks to root against them, not for them. The Springboks weren’t the “national” team. They were the whites’ team.
With South Africa set to host the Rugby World Cup in 1995, Mandela saw a chance to unify the country. When the film begins in earnest, at the beginning of his term, reconciliation is the watchword. “The past is the past. We look to the future now,” he says, one of many such noble things he says over the course of the film. (His dialogue seems to have been culled entirely from “Great Quotes by Nelson Mandela,” if such a book exists.) He urges whites not to be fearful, blacks not to be vengeful. If he can rally everyone behind the Springboks — and if the team can actually perform well enough to earn their enthusiasm — then perhaps unity can be achieved.
Mandela meets with the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), a blond Afrikaner whose father (Patrick Lyster) told him that Mandela’s election marked “the day our country went to the dogs.” Francois is quite a bit more respectful. He’s in awe of being invited to have tea with the president, and stunned to come out of the meeting realizing that Mandela wants him to lead the team to the World Cup.
So how do the Springboks get whipped into shape and become inspirational underdog heroes? Good question! It is a question that perhaps “Invictus” should have addressed! Extracurricular activities like rugby camps in poor black neighborhoods help increase the team’s popularity among that segment of the population — the kids especially love the Springboks’ one black player, Chester Williams (McNeil Hendricks) — but that doesn’t explain how the team starts winning more games. Does it happen just because Mandela wants it to? Well, the guy is pretty persuasive, but….
Frustratingly, we learn very little about Mandela as a man. He’s saintly, magnanimous, quick to ask his staff members about their families, eager to learn the names of all the Springbok players before he meets them. A few passing references are made to his fractured family life, and how his 43 million constituents are his family now, but that’s it. There’s nothing about the man behind the legend. The sports-drama side of the film, as mentioned, is just as unremarkable. This superficial treatment of both aspects, Mandela and the World Cup, means that we never get a sense of what it all means to everyone, how important it is. The message seems to be that sports can bring people together — but I only heard that in my mind; I never felt it in my heart. The poem from which the film takes its title, about overcoming adversity through self-determination (“I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul”), bears little in common with the glossy, two-dimensional feel-good-ness depicted on the screen.
Eastwood, still cranking out modest and occasionally terrific movies as he approaches his 80th birthday, hasn’t exactly struck out here; he’s just missed a good opportunity. Working from a screenplay adaptation by Anthony Peckham (who also co-wrote this season’s “Sherlock Holmes”), Eastwood has no time for nuance or subtlety. Instead, there are generic tensions between Mandela’s black bodyguards and his white ones, tensions that are somehow cured by rugby and that never meant much to the viewer in the first place. Francois’s newfound appreciation for Mandela after visiting the prison cell he languished in for 27 years? Glossed over. Representative of Eastwood’s on-the-nose style is a cheesy, out-of-place pop song he chose to use in a prominent spot in the story. The clearly audible title: “Colorblind.” You know, in case you missed the point.
C+ (2 hrs., 13 min.; )