Review: Invictus (2009)

Clint Eastwood is a very capable director of good, thoughtful dramas.  Even though Eastwood is now in his eighties, for the past decade his output has been regular and reliable, and so it comes as no surprise that Invictus is yet another good, thoughtful drama, with fine performances and methodical direction. Invictus falls into the category of sports drama, but, like Eastwood’s other films, it does not mindlessly play out the conventions of its genre.  Though the South African Springboks, the rugby union team the film follows, were not expected to perform well at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Invictus is not really an underdog sports movie, nor is it a passionate celebration of a sport.  Rather, Invictus is an exploration of the power of sports to unite people.  Set in the early years after apartheid in South Africa, the film shows how then-president Nelson Mandela used rugby to bring his still-divided country together.  In a way, Invictus is a national epic told as a sports movie.  This may explain why the actual rugby scenes are—apart from a critical scrum that is slowed down to such an extreme that it captures the excruciating physicality of the game—fairly lackluster.  Our deepest concerns are off the field; that is to say, we want the Springboks to win not for their own sake but for the sake of their nation.

Because of the great importance of Nelson Mandela and the great evilness of apartheid, it is hard to judge how good the film actually is.  Of course, it displays Eastwood’s trademarks: a slow, deliberate pace and an elegant simplicity of style.  But is Invictus good because of how it relates its subject matter, or because of its subject matter?  Is the power of the story in the events or in the telling of them?  Is Morgan Freeman’s performance as Mandela great, or is Freeman fascinating only because he is playing Mandela, a fascinating and great man?  Either way, what I watched was inspiring, and that certainly counts for something.

7 out of 10

Invictus (2009)

Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Anthony Peckham from a book by John Carlin; starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.