Nelson Mandela movies have been something of Hollywood kryptonite in the past. Countless projects, written, cast, and inevitably dropped, litter the land of development hell. For a man who was so inspirational to so many people, its surprising that no one has ever really managed the pivotal Nelson Mandela movie. Put the legend in the context of an inspirational sports story, and the writer of Invictus may just have cracked the code on adapting the unadaptable life. Does the film stand up to the man?
A Clint Eastwood… motivational sports movie. Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue now does it? The biggest grey area facing the Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon headlining adaption of the non-fiction bestseller was its director, not from a question of quality, but from a question of tone. One finds it hard to believe that the man behind Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters From Iwo Jima, would seek out a more light-hearted, and dare I say conventional genre film. Of course, Invictus quickly proves itself to be nothing of the kind. While all the major clichés are briefly addressed, the pacing and the sequencing are completely unusual for a simple story of athletic triumph. The difference is inherent in the balancing act between the story of a newly elected Nelson Mandela trying to bring together a disparate nation, and the story of a rugby team captain, asked to do the impossible for his country. Neither is entirely fleshed out, and one wonders if a completely Mandela focused film would have been a stronger choice, but they work together adequately to create the world in which real events changed history.
Mandela was once asked in an interview about who he would want to have play him in a movie, and Morgan Freeman was his response. This was the role he was born to play, and the fact that he is almost the exact same age as Mandela was during that period is a wonderful coincidence that helps elevate the performance in our modern context. He is simply extraordinary in the role, and I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to see him get another Acadamy Award nomination for his work here. Matt Damon is also quite impressive in contrast to Mandela’s composed brilliance, and he manages to be the most sympathetic rugby player I’ve ever seen on film. The whole team works incredibly well together, and each character stands out on the field, holding their own through the entire tournament up to their final game against the crushing might of New Zealand. Mandela’s bodyguards and top advisors also benefit from decent amounts of character development, giving their happiness and despair another level of audience involvement, though it still falls short of the amount you’d like from this kind of film.
There’s something endearingly precise about a Clint Eastwood movie that makes it hard to find exactly what went wrong. The music is appropriately upbeat and dramatic, only briefly flirting with the depressed piano melodies of his past couple of films, and wholly embracing the South Africa sound with drums and cheers to help flesh everything out. The stadium photography is a little funky, if only because the crowd is so clearly CG, and everything else is so gritty and grounded that the ridiculous “helicopter” shots feel very out of place. There’s also a tendency, in the particularly powerful moments, of getting rid of normal speed photography all together, causing a mountain of slow-motion cutting to pile up higher than the roof of the stadium. That’s all fine and good if used sparingly, but here, it’s a bit of overkill for my taste.
The movie is a solid flick, capable of producing several strong nominations for its principle cast and crew, while not being nearly as powerful as Eastwood’s last few efforts behind the camera. Don’t expect it to clean up come awards season, but it’s certainly in the running for a number of the major categories. One thing’s for sure, in a time when everyone and their mother has a depressing, emotionally destructive Oscar-bait film coming out, Invictus sure does go down easy. See it, enjoy it, and maybe you might even learn a bit of South African history while you’re at it.
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