Invictus is solid, unsurprising, formalist filmmaking of the kind we’ve come to expect from Clint Eastwood—and which a lot of people seem to feel makes him one of our great filmmakers. That last is a point I’ve never been able to accept, though I don’t deny I feel a certain admiration—most of the time—for Eastwood’s tendency to eschew fashion in favor of what appeals to him as a workable aesthetic. It’s probably a smart move on his part, too. I don’t think the world is ready for a Clint Eastwood picture in the style of Baz Luhrmann, though the prospect is not without its amusing side.
Here we have Eastwood in a somewhat different mode than his last several films. It’s material that qualifies as “important,” but with Invictus, Eastwood eschews the surface manipulations of his images that he indulged in with his World War II doubleheader and Changeling (2008). However, neither does he adopt the crude down-and-dirty drive-in look of Gran Torino (2008). Instead, Eastwood offers us a coolly elegant film that’s often suffused in natural light (or the illusion of it) coming in from windows. His compositions are carefully calculated without feeling fussy, and his use of moving camera is very striking—sometimes making it clear that what feel like seamless performances are obviously created from multiple takes. (Sorry, but you just can’t dolly behind and in front of characters at the same time.)
As filmmaking goes—in a purely technical sense—Invictus is a stunner. It’s the kind of film you wish film students would go see and take to heart—and understand why the camera moving in just a bit on Matt Damon when he says, “I think he wants us to win the World Cup,” is so very right. It wouldn’t hurt to absorb the bold use of Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela appearing in double exposure in his old jail cell and on the prison yard. These things are silent-movie techniques, but they still work—and they’re refreshing to see here.
Unfortunately, Invictus isn’t as strong dramatically as it is technically. It was a wise decision to use one specific aspect of Nelson Mandela’s early presidency in South Africa, rather than attempt a full-blown Mandela biopic. And the choice of the story—Mandela helping to unite the racially divided nation through turning an apartheid-era rugby team into something the whole country could get behind—wasn’t a bad one. The combination of biopic and uplifting sports drama is safe, but that may be a problem in itself. It’s too safe. It takes what should be edgy material and reduces it to something almost wholly predictable. Yes, it’s done well, but it rarely challenges the viewer—even though it deliberately and inescapably carries a subtext about America’s reaction to its own first black president—and it almost never attains much emotional resonance. You end up thinking about the movie more than feeling it.
It doesn’t help in the least that the climactic game is curiously flat—and I don’t think this stems from the basic unfamiliarity with rugby that’s likely to be the lot of most American viewers. The game is comprehensible enough, it just isn’t particularly involving. The crowd cheers, but I didn’t—something that might be different if you see the film with an audience, which I did not, so bear that in mind.
I do suggest you see Invictus. It’s a good film with two strong performances helping to hold it in place. Morgan Freeman’s Mandela is effortless and effective. But in many ways, Matt Damon’s Francois Pienaar is more remarkable. For the second time this year (the first was in The Informant!), Damon made me completely forget I was watching an actor perform. That makes the film worth a look by itself, but it’s only one of several reasons. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.