“How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing less will do?” asks Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela during a pivotal scene in the post-apartheid sports drama Invictus. Apparently it’s a rhetorical question, since the filmmakers don’t seem to have an answer. Invictus has noble intentions, but it stumbles over its own grand aspirations; it’s so concerned with being inspirational that it never takes the time or trouble to actually figure out what it takes to inspire. Habitual Oscar-botherer Clint Eastwood’s latest film is competently made and it certainly means well, but it opts for fuzzy platitudes and quotable preachiness over the compelling drama at the core of its premise.
Invictus concerns itself mainly with the first year of Mandela’s history-making presidency. After serving 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activism, the newly elected president is faced with a seemingly insurmountable task: to reconcile the country’s white minority with its newly empowered and understandably bitter black majority, or, as the film states it, to “balance black aspirations with white fears.” He quickly decides that one way to do this is to light a fire under the Springboks, South Africa’s struggling—and mostly white—rugby team. Getting the Boks motivated is the easy part; he enlists the help of Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), their charismatic and popular captain, who accepts Mandela’s challenge and sets his team to the task of winning the 1995 World Cup. The hard part is getting black South Africans to support a team that has become an indirect symbol of apartheid. Even his own staff thinks Mandela is committing political suicide by backing the Springboks.
Though Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham make an admirable attempt to avoid sports movie clichés, they fail to come up with anything interesting or moving to put in their place. There’s surprisingly little rugby in this movie about rugby, but there sure is plenty of talk about the popular game and its potential to unite the fractured country. Ironically, the film only really works when it embraces the conventions it tries to circumvent. The bone-grinding climactic game—match? bout? I don’t know—is pretty exciting, even if you have no idea what anyone’s trying to do besides rip another guy’s arm out of its socket. It appeals nicely to our innate tendency to root for the underdog, even if most of these underdogs have been racist jerks for a good portion of the movie.
Such scenes are few and far between, though. For the most part, every time things threaten to get interesting, the filmmakers yank the dramatic rug from under the audience’s feet. Characters change and grow, but they only do it when no one’s looking. One scene finds the Springboks grumbling about South Africa’s new government and calling its African multi-language national anthem a “terrorist song”; in the next scene, the same men are eagerly shaking Mandela’s hand and giving him a Springboks cap. It happens again and again; we see one state (the Springboks suck) replaced by a new one (the Springboks kick ass), but we have absolutely no clue what happens in between. How did they go from being an embarrassingly bad team to one that has a shot at the World Cup? How do the players, mostly privileged whites, conquer their fears and attendant bigotry? How, exactly, does the team go from being a reminder of South Africa’s ugly past to being a symbol of its more hopeful future? Invictus never bothers to tell us.
Freeman and co-star Matt Damon never actually sing “Kumbaya,” but you wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they did—heavy-handed and on-the-nose, Invictus is that kind of a movie. Couldn’t we have gotten the idea without the ham-fisted use of schmaltzy pop songs with titles like “Colorblind”? Eastwood doesn’t think so. There really is a terrific story here, and we get occasional flashes of it. The film would have benefited greatly from narrowing its sights in favor of a more personal tale of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption, rather than its attempt to depict a nation’s cultural revolution in 134 minutes. The film doesn’t have one protagonist, or even two—it has 42 million of them (the population of South Africa, as we’re frequently reminded throughout the picture). Mandela and Pienaar are likeable enough, but we never get a feel for them as people. Mandela is presented as a saintly icon, and we learn practically nothing about Pienaar, let alone how he inspired his team to accomplish such an incredible feat. Only when it resorts to invoking the poem from which it borrows its title does Invictus become anywhere nearly as stirring as it wants to be.