Racially-charged sports dramas are a stable genre in Hollywood. From Brian's Song to Remember the Titans, its the source of great weepies. This year, however we were treated to two such films that took alternate routes to the same message; but where The Blind Side served as a white-guilt fairy tale, Invictus, which tells the story of how then-South African president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite his apartheid-torn country, is a stately by-the-numbers tale that respects its subject too much.
The film mainly focuses on Mandela and his relationship with the captain of the Springboks, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), with a major subplot showing the changing relationships within Mandela's bodyguard crew, which consists of both black Africans and the white officers who had oppressed them just years before. The film has some excellent rugby action scenes. Considering that many Americans (myself included) know very little about the sport, its to director Clint Eastwood's credit that he makes these scenes so engaging.
Yet Invictus is oddly disappointing being an Eastwood film. The film has action, but it lacks any sense of urgency or energy. In fact, the film is bizarrely almost completely devoid of emotion at all. Eastwood's direction is often pedestrian, as if he had no emotional connection to the project at all. There are moments in the film, such as when the Springboks visit the prison Mandela had spent the previous 30 years in, that should be moving, but instead are presented as just the next set of images. This is a strange turn for Eastwood; maybe the mediocre script by Anthony Peckham just wasn't inspiring enough.
Also not inspiring are the two Oscar nominated performances by Freeman and Damon, which is also strange given their considerable talents. Freeman is a near-perfect physical doppelganger of Mandela, and plays the part well. What hinders his performance is that Mandela is such a bore here. We don't really get to see what makes him tick, nor any other interesting aspects of his life. The film portrays him as a regal statesman who only speaks in inspirational quotes, and respects him to the point of sanitizing him. In a better movie, Freeman could have been a fantastic Mandela as man, rather than Mandela as icon. Damon has it even worse though: his Pienaar is a one-dimensional character, agreeing promptly to help Mandela by encouraging the Springboks to start winning so that they can win the World Cup. But once again, there's no energy or explanation for why Pienaar does this or how the team suddenly improves. Worse, Pienaar's backstory is dreadfully glanced over, suggesting that maybe its because of his racist parents that he hopes Mandela is successful but never follows it up. Though Damon is serviceable in this role, he's hardly nomination worthy, as his talent is squandered here. It should be noted, though, that unlike The Blind Side, the film never resorts to stereotype for whites or blacks.
The story behind Invictus is a powerful one, and in reality is inspiring, since the Springboks did manage to bring South Africa together. But the film itself seems to be uninterested in being inspiring itself, and comes off as simply mediocre instead.