Warner Bros. // 2009 // 133 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // June 7th, 2010
His people needed a leader. He gave them a champion.
Invictus was the recipient of two Oscar nominations earlier this year, and managed to rack up nearly $123 million worldwide. These sorts of statistics speak highly of the movie, maybe to a loftier degree than the product actually deserves. Invictus is indeed a well acted and perfectly watchable motion picture, but it's certainly not the most memorable sporting drama ever committed to celluloid. The film recounts Nelson Mandela's attempt to unite his conflicted country of South Africa, using the 1995 Rugby World Cup as the platform on which to do so. Director Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino) perfectly captures the feeling of a country at war with itself and draws out some credible performances from his capable cast, but from a narrative perspective Invictus is perhaps a little soft to be considered a truly great work.
Following years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, The Dark Knight) was elected as President of South Africa in 1994. With his country still in tatters following the Apartheid, Mandela looked to find a solution, something with which he could help his countrymen forget their differences and find some sense of unity. With the 1995 Rugby World Cup looming, Mandela turns to national team The Springbok to bring the glory he's looking for. The Springbok have been underperforming and half of the country deplores them, but nonetheless, Mandela decides that they can provide the unifying factor he so desperately desires. Turning to the team's captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, The Bourne Ultimatum), Mandela asks the Springbok to do the impossible, and win the World Cup against all odds and expectation.
Invictus is a gentle and restrained feature, maybe to a degree that even harms the final product. Clint Eastwood directs the story with a laid back and unapologetically uplifting attitude, turning away from the grislier elements that populated South Africa during the mid '90s. Invictus is well shot and brilliantly cast, but the screenplay lacks the depth and bravery to really turn the picture into a genre classic. Given the subject matter it remains an intermittently fascinating film, but the soft spoken and conventional approach to the storytelling keeps it from burrowing deep into a viewer's memory.
The screenplay, written by Anthony Peckham (one of the writers involved with the 2009 reboot of Sherlock Holmes), is based on a book by John Carlin, a text that used the 1995 World Cup as a way of exploring Nelson Mandela as a leader and a man. Invictus takes the same tone for at least its first two thirds, the final act morphing into a more traditional sporting underdog tale. The script does a modest job of portraying Mandela, and it's aided by Freeman's admirable acting, but it perhaps is a little lacking in fresh insights or perspective. This version of Mandela isn't particularly new or invigorating, Invictus content to focus on his inspirational leadership, leaving his personal life more or less alone. The film does occasionally attempt to skirt around the topic but it lacks the courage or bravery to make a full commitment, meaning that the Mandela in this film is more or less the exact same as any other version of the great man. Peckham has also filled the script with one rousing speech too many, the movie relying excessively on these heavy monologues to build up its characterization of Mandela. A more subtle and complex piece of writing is that which surrounds Pienaar, a more simplistic character for sure; but Peckham finds creative and interesting ways to allow Damon's performance some room to breathe. Peckham manages to cultivate several touching and satisfying moments of insight for the sportsman to endure, allowing the audience to further appreciate his teams struggle and the majesty of Mandela's message.
Both Damon and Freeman are worthy of the Oscar nominations they accrued. Freeman does a fine job of mimicking and capturing the surface elegance of Mandela's generosity and spirit, Damon left with the slightly tougher job of turning the less remarkable Pienaar into an engaging character. Thankfully Peckham's writing and Damon's skill allow the Rugby player to form into an intriguing and sympathetic individual, finding a good balance between valor, doubt and awe. The scenes that Damon and Freeman share together are nothing short of acting master classes, which goes some way to compensating for the lack of memorable support. Again Peckham's screenplay should be flagged here for failing to write any other figure as a properly three dimensional human being, but few of the other actors are able to bring the same joy and passion to the project that the leads do.
The setting is well captured by Eastwood, albeit his glacial and refined way with the story perhaps robs it of some potential punch. As a filmmaker, Eastwood has consistently displayed a slightly anachronistic devotion to classical storytelling, and nothing has changed with Invictus. The movie slots the South African story into several well-worn genre templates, even moving into a sporting finale with the sort of uplifting underdog determination we've seen a thousand times before. It might have been more interesting to focus on some of the social troubles of the time. A subplot with a cache of mixed race body guards is suitably endearing, but it's not enough to fully encompass the racial uncertainty and turmoil that plagued the country post Apartheid. Still, Eastwood provides enough heart and energy to keep the plotting enjoyable, even if it refuses to sacrifice its ruthlessly familiar layout and mood. By the finish, audiences will be invested in the team and the country's future, and that for all intents and purposes it's what Invictus essentially sets out to do.
The rugby is nicely staged and visually comprehensible, Eastwood keeping a stern and fluid focus on the brutal game. Slow motion passes and growls do aid the feeling of Hollywood cliché, but Eastwood has his heart in the right place, and the final match is genuinely thrilling to watch. Invictus delivers a feel good finish (it isn't a spoiler because it's a sporting statistic), even if it feels like a few opportunities were wasted en route. Audiences will have to wait longer for the definitive Mandela picture to roll around (and when it does, Freeman should be recast), but in the meantime, Invictus should act as a worthwhile time filler.
The Blu-ray looks sublime; the rugby sequences are complemented with an exquisite amount of detail and a clear and vibrant palette of colours. The rest of the film is photographed in a slightly less aggressive manner, the colors becoming less prominent in the quieter and more thoughtful sequences. This likely isn't exclusive to the Blu-ray and is probably a deliberate style elected by the filmmakers, but it's particularly obvious on this Hi-Def disc. The chants and ferocious roars of the rugby field are marvelously presented on the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, allowing the film to really display the aggressive and fist pumping atmosphere that accompanies professional sports at such a high level. These sequences feature some of the most elevated and well defined sound design I've seen on a Blu-ray release, something that makes the occasionally muffled dialogue hard to fathom. For 95 percent of the film, the audio is crisp and clear, but occasionally I found myself hitting the subtitle function on my remote, and it wasn't because of the burly South African accents.
The disc comes equipped with a reasonable expanse of additional material, starting with a standard-def version and a digital copy. A picture in picture making of is the disc's best asset, filled with interesting behind the scenes snippets and interviews. This feature provides a good deal of insight into the actual production and the real life events that inspired the movie. Mandela Meets Morgan is also a fascinating extra feature, examining the actor and the icon; showcasing several of their meetings together. It lasts nearly half an hour and balances a sense of fun with a deeper and more reverent sensibility. I enjoyed it immensely. Also included are featurettes in which Damon trains for the physical nature of the role (it's pretty so-so) and a 20 minute examination of Eastwood's career. The latter featurette is an elongated sample of a forthcoming feature length documentary on Eastwood, and for that reason feels like a somewhat unsatisfactory advertisement. Still, it's better in than out.
Invictus isn't a brilliant film, but it's well assembled and entertaining none the less. The Blu-ray release is a sturdy example of hi-def technology.
Not Guilty, but perhaps a rental would be the most appropriate course of
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* In-Move Experience
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy