If truth is stranger than fiction, what is the fictionalized version of reality? More normal? Less special? That's the quandary facing Clint Eastwood and his latest grab for end of the year accolades, Invictus. It indeed tells the real story, circa 1995, of newly elected President Nelson Mandela, a South Africa deeply divided by racial and economic tensions, and a miserable national rugby team that inspires nothing but yawns from its few remaining fans. Seeing an opportunity to unite black and white under a common cause, Mandela - ably plaid by Morgan Freeman - decides to "inspire" the players into winning the upcoming World Cup (ironically enough, being played on their home turf).
To this end, he enlists the help of the team's disgruntled captain Francois Pienaar (an able Matt Damon). Through individual outreach, some unusual policy, and a traditional belief that right always wins out, the controversial leader struggles to garner the favor of a wary citizenry - especially one that associates anything linked to rugby as part of Apartheid and the days of white power. To make matters worse, the team is just terrible, losing game after game in an uninspired and lackluster manner. Of course, by the time the actual tournament rolls around, Pienaar has turned them around, Mandela is sensing victory, and all eyes are on South Africa as a country learns the power of forgiveness, and the strength in a common bond.
If you took every sports movie cliché, combined it with a relatively revealing look at the early days of the Nelson Mandela administration, and tossed in enough racial tension to remind us of the stakes at hand, you'd have Invictus. Director Eastwood, who has consistently produced some of the new millennium's finest films, doesn't reinvent the wheel here. He's fully ensconced in the whole biopic/big game cinematic dynamic. Everything here founded in formula, leading up to the big match between South African and mighty force New Zealand. All narrative strands set us up for the typical us vs. them resolution, and nothing is left to chance. Eastwood even pads the premise with some of Mandela's personal struggles (his long prison term, his family difficulties) though it does little but color the backdrop. Without a real sense of suspense (Google will do that to you), it's all down to a matter of execution.
And this is where Invictus stumbles, if only a little. Everything that's wrong - and its just a few elements here and there - can be summed up in a single, silly scene. As the players prepare in far off, mountain surrounded practice field, Mandela boards a helicopter to visit them. As majestic peaks and valleys fall away in front of the camera, an incredibly hackneyed power ballad pours out of the speakers. It's so syrupy it should come with a side of pancakes. It screams "Important!". It shouts "Symbolic!". It literally jumps up and down and demands you take it ultra-seriously. While endemically old school in design and execution, it's also antiquated in it effectiveness. We don't need Eastwood reminding us that what we're witnessing is historic, or significant. What we want is to become immersed in the situation, to see it from both the political and the personal angle - and that just never happens.
Damon's character is also a problem. Pienaar is seen as passive most of the time, idly sitting back as his teammates slack and complain, wandering around his family home (with plotpoint maid in the background just ripe for manipulation) like a buff zombie pin-up. He seems to have no real opinions, no honest belief, and in the end, when forced to inspire his comrades, no real shift in personality. Damon delivers the necessary earnestness, the willingness to sacrifice and suffer, but that's about it. Of course, since Pienaar is a real person, maybe the actor is just mimicking the truth. But in a film built on so many already established motion picture archetypes, Damon is allowed to let loose. He could have made Pienaar inspirational. Instead, he's merely efficient.
But a lot of the 'good, not great' blame falls squarely on Eastwood's shoulders. There is no denying the film's craftsmanship or polish. It isn't sloppy or second hand. But it is also aloof and distant, defying the audience to understand the game it is supposed to embrace (rugby gets a mere cursory "explanation" during a player's outing with some school kids), while failing to fill in some necessary geo-political components. Indeed, Mandela's rise to power is infinitely more intriguing than the predictable back and forth of the mixed race security squad employed. By constantly thrusting the narrative toward the magnitude of the big game, Eastwood undermines the little moments. Even when the aforementioned servant gets her chance to shine, we see it coming as part of a preplanned tug at the heart, not a realistic portrait of a country coming together.
In the end, Invictus is like any other reenactment - authentic without necessarily being artistic or inventive. It works, but it doesn't redefine our appreciation. Of course, one imagines that Eastwood understands this. He probably also understands that he couldn't get away with ignoring the final match, creating a quasi-villainous character in New Zealand's man-mountain player Jonah Lomu. In fact, all the opponents - on and off the pitch - are generic and underdeveloped, and Mandela's ability to win them over seems calculated and created solely out of a Hollywood screenplay.
One senses that the actual transition of power, the inability to initially reach out to the angered white population, the questions about his family life (and, specifically, his wife) as well as the horrid years spent in prison could provide more context here than a scrum or a ruck. Mandela is a man who literally went from political prisoner to savoir of his nation. Like the leader it portrays, Invictus had the power to change the way we view the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Unlike Mandela, the movie is only partially successful.