Let me think of a formula for a compelling movie…
Clint Eastwood directing. Morgan Freeman acting. A sport where guys hit each other a lot. Maybe one of the biggest human interest stories in the last 20 years in the person of Nelson Mandela.
Sounds pretty good, I think. That’s the essence of Invictus, the 2009 edition of (what seems like) Clint Eastwood’s annual film offering just in time for awards season. The movie is about Nelson Mandela and what he meant for the country of South Africa; like most biography pics in the last 10 years, it chooses to tell the story from the lens of a particular moment (rather than the birth-childhood-adulthood-death versions). This particular moment is Nelson Mandela’s support of the South African rugby team shortly after his election in 1994 and what it inspired. The film is a little predictable, but that’s not really fair since a) you can’t completely change history (unless you’re Quentin Tarantino and Brad Pitt) and b) inspirational movies are always predictable- (I bet the character overcomes obstacles and succeeds (or dies trying), but that’s not their intention, nor should that be the criteria for judging them. (If a suspense thriller is predictable, then you’ve got problems!)
First of all, Morgan Freeman does a great job as Nelson Mandela. He probably won’t win the Oscar because it’s a sports movie, but that’s life. It probably would have been hard for anyone to mess up the role. Mandela’s life itself is the real star of the movie, and that brings me to the second point…
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I went away really wishing this wasn’t a sports movie. Now I love sports, and I love sports movies, and there’s a reason why I’ve never watched Remember the Titans with my wife present. But the rugby issue often felt like the usually annoying subplot of 24, where the characters you don’t really care about talk and debate and fill time while Jack Bauer drives across town, eats a sandwich, and goes to the bathroom (cuz when else could he?). Even the major character of the team, played by Matt Damon, isn’t allowed to develop much. His dad seems a little racist, and his team is terrible, but what is he like? Good luck, we don’t really know, except for that he somehow gets his team motivated and has an emotional experience at the island prison where Mandela was kept. And the characters get more foggy from there. Without the well-developed auxillary characters, the transformation from apartheid to something better was a little nebulous. (I think Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino actually made larger racial strides than what we were allowed to see here.) Also, the fact that it took me most of the movie to figure out the scoring in rugby (thanks for the lack of explaining dialogue there) made following the matches and caring a little more difficult. And I’m a recovering sports junkie.
I wonder how great this film would have been as a more straight-forward Mandela bio-pic. Every time his character was on screen, my eyes were glued to the screen. Fascinating man. It’s never good when you leave a movie thinking of how it could be better. That’s a signal that something in the movie didn’t sit right, even if you can’t express it.
In all, it’s a good movie and definitely worth seeing. The issues of forgiveness embodied by Nelson Mandela deserve to be seen and chewed over, especially as followers of Christ. I left wanting to see more of that part, which may be the intention after all.