With their traditional aesthetic techniques, absence of look-at-me embellishments, and embrace of bedrock genres, Clint Eastwood’s films are often termed “classical,” a term that, with regard to Invictus, also suggests something close to stale. The story of newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela’s 1995 efforts to support the national rugby team as it entered the World Cup, Eastwood’s latest behind-the-camera endeavor exhibits his trademark formal sturdiness, full of clean visual lines, smart juxtapositions, and just enough detachment to prevent overblown mawkishness from entering into the equation. At the same time, however, Eastwood’s conventional directorial approach is part and parcel of the proceedings’ overriding mustiness. Focused on how Mandela’s support of the Springboks club, long a symbol of apartheid, functioned as a canny populist maneuver to heal the racially torn nation, his tale is of worthy historical significance and yet, in being adapted into a film, assumes the guise of a clichéd sports drama.
Shoehorned into a formulaic three-act narrative structure, Mandela’s (Morgan Freeman) tactical foresight to see rugby as a vehicle for cultural unity exhibits all the hallmarks of an earnest but creaky cinematic school lesson, from its cardboard cutout racist Afrikaners, to its simplistic sketches of those whites learning to accept blacks as equals, to its preference for explicitly expressing its themes. The subjects of tolerance and courage are, in Anthony Peckham’s script (adapted from John Carlin’s book), regularly articulated by Mandela in a straightforward manner, resulting in a hand-holding quality that’s not insulting but does tread close to exasperating, seeing as how so little is required of the viewer to parse. Eschewing obliqueness isn’t a death knell for Eastwood’s film, yet it contributes to a situation in which stock plot tropes and moral messages are proffered with easy-to-read blandness.
Of course, there’s an obvious contemporary American subtext lurking beneath this saga about a historic black president attempting to unite a country still struggling with its racist past. Still, if Eastwood wisely refrains from making any overt Obama references, the parallel still lurks throughout, albeit in a way that doesn’t so much enhance the action—or provide any profound enlightenment on our current domestic circumstances—as merely function as a topical parallel. Invictus is safe to the point of being toothless, an impression that extends to both the casting of, and performance by, Freeman as Mandela, who in the actor’s hands is brave, daring, bursting with life, slightly flawed (thanks to a tense relationship with his wife and kids) and noble in ways which are predictable and provide little complicated insight into the icon.
Eastwood never digs deep into the racial strife that still gripped South Africa at the time, instead relying on “I don’t trust racist whites” black characters and their “I hate subhuman blacks” white counterparts in a manner that allows for basic 1-2-3 drama—first angry distrust, then grudging cooperation, then finally, upon rugby triumph, brotherly hugs and smiles set to cloying, on-the-nose songs. In between mundane subplots involving Mandela’s bodyguard detail and a young boy who comes around to cheering the hated Springboks is Mandela’s relationship with Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (a functional Matt Damon). Despite his dad’s fondness for spouting bite-size nuggets of hate, the one-dimensionally decent Pienaar convinces his rugby cohorts to embrace the new, integrated South Africa (via singing the national anthem). And, by instilling tolerance in his once-racist mates, he also transforms the struggling club into a powerhouse that, in the finale, beats a New Zealand squad that the film turns into a more straight-faced, but no less ridiculous, Big Bad Enemy along the lines of Major League‘s New York Yankees villains.
There’s no disputing these events occurred, and yet Invictus consistently refracts them through a passably inoffensive lens that affords no room for interpretation, surprises, or electricity. It’s just as one might remember those legitimately groundbreaking, heart-swelling events, only duller.