It’s tough to make movies about politics, and for the a lot of the same reasons, pretty easy to make movies about sports. Sports rules are clear and defined; things have starting and stopping points. Not so with politics. In “Invictus,” Clint Eastwood tries to elucidate a bit of political history using a rugby game. He fails, primarily because he makes the politics too simple, and the rugby too complicated.
It’s really too bad, because I think at the heart of “Invictus” is a powerful story about reconciliation and forgiveness. This was a movie I wanted to like, even as the end credits rolled, and it took me a day or two to admit I didn’t like it, not much. Morgan Freeman’s been wanting to make this film for years and has struggled to get it greenlighted; it’s hard to imagine that he’s very happy with the final product. Everything about “Invictus” feels lazy, half-baked, by-the-numbers, conventional rough drafted, or just thin.
Freeman plays South African president Nelson Mandela, who spent 2 decades in prison under apartheid before being elected once the racist policy was banned. Needless to say, it was a tumultous time for South Africa; the black Africans had suffered under racist policies for a long time, and now that they were in power, retribution was on their minds. But not on Mandela’s; he was wise enough to see that the only future for his country was a future of reconciliation, not revenge. Freeman seems born to play this role; he has the same polite charm that Mandela exuded, the same wise benevolence that gets him constant calls from agents who need to cast God. (If anyone ever decides to make a Morgan Freeman biopic, I think God might get a casting call.) Rugby was the game preferred by whites over soccer; as one white character puts it, “soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, while rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.” Mandela becomes a fan of the national rugby team as an act of reconcilaiation; he understands that whites and blacks need to find something relatively neutral they can agree about before they are able to make any progress on tougher, more racially charged issues. Rugby is a lot safer than education reform.
Eastwood spends the first half of the movie focusing on the political challeges Mandela faces, and yet none of it manages to feel real, or important. You might argue that it’s all but impossible to bring political realities to the multiplex screen, especially those of a different decade and faraway country. True. But I recently watched both “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Constant Gardener” – both movies that both simplify and illustrate the complexity of African politics – and it’s hard to describe, they just have a feel, a grittiness, and sense of complexity and consequence that might not be on the screen, but feels just off it, in the corners, the background, somewhere near. Perhaps Eastwood should have watched those movies before making this one; “Invictus” seems to exist in an awfully simple universe, a Leave it to Beaverse, which is strange thing to say about a movie set so far from Main Street, U.S.A.
And then there’s the rugby. I wonder what rugby players and fans would think of this movie; I don’t know any, so I can’t ask. The sport is mostly a mystery to most Americans, a fact that Eastwood somehow forgot while making “Invictus.” The South African rugby team starts out pretty terrible, and then there’s a training montage, and then they’re much better, apparently because Mandela believes in them. Matt Damon is the captain of the team, but he’s given precious little to do; he spends most of the movie struggling with his accent. He’s pretty terrible at delivering inspiring speeches, but that may be the fault of the writing, not the acting. Indeed, the writing is so terrible that, before the final rugby match, I know more about the players and strategies of the opposing team than of the South Africans. It’s hard to escape the fact that, for most of the second half of “Invictus,” we are watching sweaty brutes pound each other in the mud, with little understanding of why or to what end. And then that fact is highlighted at the end; Eastwood slows down the video and amps up the audio for the final seconds of the final game, but the effect isn’t one of dramatic tension or climax; it just makes the bodies look muddier and sweatier, the grunts louder, and the men, well, more ridiculous than ever. That slow motion sequence has to be one of the worst directorial decisions I’ve seen in a long time.
But in spite of grossly oversimplifying complex matter and refusing to explain a fairly simple game, Eastwood and Freeman manage to get their point across, albeit with a giant rubber hammer. The heart of “Invictus” is a powerful story; of this I feel sure. I’d like to read the book it was based on. I’d like another movie to be made based on that book, but I suppose I’ll have to wait a decade or so before that can happen. This movie does not do its story justice.