In Invictus, Clint Eastwood conducts himself as he always does as a director: He hunkers down, gets rid of all extraneous flourishes and tells his story straight up. The result is earnest, admirable and more than a little dull — a pedestrian movie about a remarkable subject.
Adapted by screenwriter Anthony Peckham from John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy, Invictus centers on the efforts by newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) to unite his deeply divided country — to begin to heal the seemingly irreparable damage caused by decades of apartheid by turning the members of its rugby team into national heroes.
This transformation is initially a lot harder than one would think it might be, since the mostly white Springboks have long been reviled by blacks as a symbol of racism. But Mandela, who grasps the depths of the fissures dividing his country, sees the team as an opportunity for South Africans to obsess over something else.
The best scenes in Invictus, which sports Eastwood’s usual slow-and-steady pacing, arrive in its first half hour. They depict Mandela’s first days in office, his meetings with his new staff and the way he gradually inspires everyone around him — from bodyguards to secretaries — to look beyond the obvious and concentrate on what matters.
Sporting subtle prosthetics that help make him, from certain angles, a dead ringer for his character, Freeman plays Mandela with an aura of quiet conviction. He doesn’t know exactly how he’s going to achieve the impossible task before him: He just knows that failure is not an option.
But Eastwood doesn’t trust the audience enough to let Freeman’s performance stand on its own: Mandela is constantly spouting one-liners (“Forgiveness is a powerful weapon.” “How do we inspire ourselves to greatness?”) that make him sound like a speech-writing machine. When a staff member explains the odds the Springboks must overcome to make the World Cup semifinals, Mandela says “So it is very important that we beat Australia,” as someone would talk to a child.
The spoon-fed feeling permeates Invictus: When a Mandela staffer exclaims “He’s not a saint! He’s a man with a man’s problems!” you wonder if Eastwood believed he was making a movie for sixth graders. That same shallowness applies to members of the Springboks, led by captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), who meets with Mandela and takes on the responsibility of inspiring his players to greatness. Invictus gives us no sense of who Francois is as a person: He, like everyone else in the movie, is merely a symbol. As a director, Eastwood excels at such intimate character stories as Million Dollar Baby or Gran Torino, in which the tiniest actions can reveal a great deal about a person.
But when he’s working on a broader canvas, such as Flags of Our Fathers or Invictus, he reduces his characters to mouthpieces. He’s more interested in the history he’s re-creating than the people who populate the tale. In its climactic half hour, Invictus becomes rousing, the way even the crummiest Rocky pictures became, because sports-underdog stories are almost impossible to mess up. But the excitement in Invictus — and the only life that radiates from it — comes from the game and not the movie.
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, Patrick Mofokeng.
Director: Clint Eastwood.
Screenwriter: Anthony Peckham. Based on the book “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin.
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Lori McCreary, Robert Lorenz.
A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 134 minutes. Vulgar language.