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Movie Review: Invictus

By Philip Martin

This article was published December 11, 2009 at 5:48 a.m.

— “Invictus” is a rather turgid poem by the Victorian poet William Ernest Henley, an expression of self praising stoicism that generations of school children memorized and that served Timothy McVeigh, the American terrorist who bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, as a final statement before his execution. It is often cited as the best-known bad poem ever written in English.

It also apparently helped sustain Nelson Mandela during his years of imprisonment on Robben Island, and so it lends its title to Clint Eastwood’s latest entertainment product, a well-made if heavy-handed account of the South African rugby team’s unlikely run in the 1995 World Cup.

Mandela, then the duly elected president of a country transitioning from apartheid to democracy, decided to embrace the national rugby team, the Springboks, precisely because they were widely perceived by blacks as a symbol of the old ways.

Most blacks eschewed rugby as a pillar of white Afrikaner culture, preferring instead the less rugged sport of soccer. The Springboks had only one “colored” player at the time, Chester Williams (a relatively diminutive player who, as it happens, served as Matt Damon’s rugby coach for this film), and retained the hated green and gold colors of the old apartheid regime.

In the film, Mandela (played with twinkling dignity by Morgan Freeman) sees the faltering team as an opportunity to unite blacks and whites, as the world travels to South Africa for the World Cup. To this end he enlists the help of the Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (Damon).

Will the Springboks do their country proud? Well, would they have made this movie if they didn’t?

To be fair, the film is perfectly serviceable and if the big names were not attached it might be regarded as watchable cable television. But the weight of elevated expectations so tugs on Invictus that it’s hard to imagine how all these resources were committed to such a slight and frankly narrowly focused film.

Seemingly by design, Eastwood denies us access into the interior lives of either Mandela or Pienaar,and the rest of the cast - the Springboks, Mandela’s security detail, Pienaar’s family - are so lightly sketched in they might as well be played by the same digital avatars that (very convincingly) fill up the stadium where the seemingly endless ultimate rugby match is played.

Eastwood loves the classic tropes of movie making, and he employs them here, sometimes to risible effect - his Springboks training montage is set to a genuinely lamentable piece of pop music - and the sports action seems unconvincingly sluggish, even when it’s not in slow motion.

On the plus side, Freeman is always wonderful to watch and Damon seems ferociously committed (while he’s obviously smaller than the real Pienaar and the filmmakers don’t always succeed in their efforts to make him seem taller than Freeman, he has an athlete’s physique and swagger), with a Boer accent that- at least to my untrained ear - sounds perfect.

Invictus isn’t terrible, it’s just ordinary. And given the credentials of its principals, a major disappointment. No movie can account for the bewildering complexity of real life, but Invictus is a riot of oversimplification. Like the poem from which it takes its title, it suffers not from any obvious technical flaws but from a failure of tone and perspective. It’s a sermon, not a story.

MovieStyle, Pages 37 on 12/11/2009

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