I was actually pleasantly surprised by Invictus. Pleasantly surprised in that it rarely made me think about killing myself, when I was expecting to use the cyanide pills I had brought along within the first half hour. This isn't a good film, but it's not painful.
Invictus chronicles the early years of Nelson Mandela's presidency. The economy is in the tubes, jobs are scarce, and ethnic tensions are at an all-time high. What better way to unite the country than by playing rugby? More specifically, spurring The Springboks, South Africa's rugby team, to win the 1995 World Cup. It would be laughably unbelievable if it weren't a true story. As fate would have it, it is a true story, and as such, I can't complain about how false the film feels. Miracles do happen, I suppose, and God knows that Clint Eastwood's going to be the first one on scene to bastardize them into feel-good cinema, assuming that Chris Columbus doesn't get there first, of course. (...Mind you, that's the director Chris Columbus, not the explorer.)
And bastardize he does. I feel like the political calculations shown onscreen were far more shrewd and planned than conveyed, as well as messier to execute. In Invictus, everything feels like it's been gift-wrapped for the camera. Inspirational montage is followed by stirring speech is followed by inspirational montage is followed by Big Important Symbolic Imagery. Such is par for the course, as far as Eastwood's newest films are concerned. The man isn't concerned with subtlety. Dammit, there is ROAD separating the WHITE people from the BLACK people, until MANDELA UNITES THEM, people. Eastwood will show this in the most literal terms possible.
Morgan Freeman seems born to play Nelson Mandela. Going into the film, I assumed that, at the least, I would see another fine Freeman performance. Strangely, I was mistaken. Freeman seems to have the mannerisms and physicality of the man down pat, but fails to delve any farther than skin-deep. What's on display is impersonation, not performance. Freeman looks and talks like Mandela, but he doesn't think like Mandela. He doesn't become Mandela. The same can be said for Matt Damon's fairly listless performance. How these two men have been nominated for SAG (Screen Actors Guild) Awards, and, in all probability, Oscars, is completely beyond me. The smaller supporting performances are, as expected, fairly awful. Eastwood doesn't take the time to instruct his actors, and it shows. The line readings by anyone whose last name doesn't rhyme with Speedman or Cayman are almost painful in their High School Drama Club feel. The original music by Clint Eastwood's brother Kyle is particularly galling and derivative. I swear, if I never hear another simple trumpet melody in another film, it will be too soon. And I have yet to even mention the film's worst mistake: it never tries to explain the game of rugby, assuming that all viewers can claim familiarity with the game. Thus, the sports scenes are well-shot and edited, but make no sense. One can only stare at so many close-ups of Matt Damon grappling with a veritable pigpen of sweaty asses before zoning out.
And yet, the film isn't terrible. There are a number of inspirational moments and pieces of heartfelt drama. Still, for every good moment, there are another two or three poor moments that have could easily have been lost; seriously, at two hours and fifteen minutes, this film is far too long.
So how on Earth did this film earn its two and a half stars? You know, I'm not entirely sure. It's easy to focus on the negative in a review, but while in the theater, the film isn't terrible. Not great, but not terrible.