Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Julian Lewis Jones, Marguerite Wheatley
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Anthony Peckham, John Carlin (novel)
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Original Score: Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens
Running Time: 133 Mins.
There are very few directors working today that can tackle any subject, and have unrivalled success, both critically and financially, within any genre as Clint Eastwood. In the last 5 years alone, with In Flags of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby and now Invictus, to his name Eastwood has built himself up as one of the key auteur’s of our time, imprinting each film with his mark of quality and master senses of story-telling, and at the age of 80 shows no sign of slowing down, with his next feature set to be the supernatural thriller Hereafter, now thats what I call diversity.
Even when working with a narrative that seems relatively straightforward, here is a director who can turn a story on its head taking something that starts out as a drama piece, Changeling, turning it into a dark and disturbing murder thriller, or starting out with an inspirational sports tale and turning it into a heart wrenching film about euthanasia, so with this in mind upon hearing that Eastwood was to tackle the story of Nelson Mandela it would be prudent to expect something a little more than your average, run-of-the-mill, biopic.
Starting with Mandela’s release from his 27 year prison stretch, we are thrust headfirst into his campaign to end apartheid and unite the countries black and white races, evidently not an easy task, what Mandela sought to do was unite his people through that most inspirational of past-times, sport. With the help of their captain, Francois Pienaar, Mandela pushes the countries (at the time) failing Rugby team towards World Cup victory in the hope that the sport that was viewed as largely a white man’s game and turn inspiration from it into something more multicultural.
Other than the talent behind the camera, the coup of Invictus is in its casting, Morgan Freeman can play character’s of the kind of quiet dignity that Mandela is a mark of, in his sleep, having taken the part of God twice (in comedies no less!), only a fool would doubt his ability to convey anything less than a similarity to Mandela himself in capturing the man’s likeness and mannerisms. But, as with all great biopic’s, it is in more than mere imitation that the character is won, having yearned to play Mandela for many years and failing to get a full-blown biopic in front of the camera, Freeman approached Eastwood to direct Invictus, it was a wise move, and in focusing on one chapter in Mandela’s life we get a more intimate picture of the man, sharing in his quiet moments and relationship with a select few in his life.
Some may see this as problematic, there is little mention of his wife and we see only the briefest snippets of his family life, with the man himself painted largely as a saint, neglecting to mention why he was imprisoned in the first place, though these can be viewed as both help and hindrance, with the feeling that tackling the man in a much broader a to b way would have robbed the character of much of his heart, and therein Freeman would have simply ended up a mere imitation.
Much like Million Dollar Baby and Changeling’s about-turns in narrative at the midpoint so to does Invictus, and while the earlier scenes in the film give us a feel for what it was Mandela aimed to do and how the latter half of the film turns its focus to the rugby itself, and it is here the Matt Damon very nearly steals the film from Freeman. There is a reason both men have been oscar nominated and Damon, as Pienaar, exudes both the physicality to make you believe in him as a Rugby player but more importantly underplays Pienaar to perfection, there is a dignity in Damon’s role that shadows Freeman, both actors complimenting each other perfectly.
There are faults to be found though and much like he did in Gran Torino Eastwood has surrounded his stars with a cast of largely unknowns, something which, at times, draws attention to the fact we are watching Damon and Freeman acting rather than two characters, something which is hard to avoid at the best of times when up against actors this capable. It also means that the acting when Freeman and Damon are not onscreen feels somewhat amateur, especially in the parallel sub-plot whereby Mandela attempts to integrate both blacks and white into his security detail.
However the films sporting final blow comes in with the depiction of the rugby itself, as assured as ever with the camera Eastwood glides effortlessly in and out of the rucks, taking us where we would never see in a game usually, something which adds a great air of authenticity, and as the players thunder down the pitch we follow gliding along giving a game that is often seen as nothing more than brute force and lacking in subtleties an elegant and worthy viewpoint, much like the film itself, finding its heart in some key moments.
Invictus is not perfect, but you would be hard pushed to find a more focused and convincing bio-pic/sports film, as ever Clint Eastwood, the director, succeeds at being the master story-teller he is…with more than a little help from Damon and Freeman’s quietly convincing turns.