Starring Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Expectations: Low.

Another one I had been avoiding. I love Clint Eastwood, but I usually find his directorial efforts to be fairly slow and plodding. There are exceptions, but as a rule, his films are understated and meditative. This is fine, I’m just rarely in that kind of a mood so I tend to avoid his films unless I have a great interest in the subject matter. This was the case with Invictus, but I’m glad I dived in because this is a really good film.

Morgan Freeman is the definite star of the show, inhabiting the role of Nelson Mandela with ease. Freeman is recognizable as both himself and Mandela in the role, skillfully blending the two personas into a memorable screen performance that never feels like one. He gives a powerful speech early in the film on why the team name should remain the Springboks, proving why Freeman received an Oscar nomination for the role. Matt Damon is also great in his scenes, but he tends to fade into the background as a lot of his scenes are without dialogue on the Rugby field. When Damon is on-screen, his subtle performance feels natural and believable. The film is essentially broken into two halves with Freeman leading the charge in the first half of the film, and Damon taking over once the World Cup action begins.

As the film deals with the end of the Apartheid era, it is concerned with showing the cautious and uneasy integration of the black and white people of South Africa. Initially, they are at odds with the situation they find themselves in, obviously preferring the old to the new, fearful unknown. There are small scenes of friendship that get deeper and warmer as the film progresses. For instance, there’s a scene towards the end where a young black child who could not get into the Rugby game inches up to a police car where two white officers listen to the game on the radio. At first they look at him with disgust and he sits far away on the curb. He slowly moves closer and closer as the game goes on until they all finally end up arm in arm out of sheer joy. This is all a bit eye-roll inducing, but the sentiment behind it is something the world would do well to aspire towards. If I didn’t know this was a true story I don’t think I would have believed it, but the fact that it is, is a testament to the power of sports to unite people of all walks to a singular cause. It’s a shame that we can’t unite over something that really matters, but one could argue that anything with this amount of power does matter. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this film comes out now, with America having a newly elected black president who seeks to unite his people on common ground. Invictus is not an overly political film though. The focus is on the relationship between Mandela and the Springboks and the tone is feel-good.

The story of the rugby games were all told through the camera and editing. This was a great touch. There was never an annoying announcer spouting off the score a million times, only shots of the players, a few scoreboards and reactions from the crowd and/or Morgan Freeman. It became obvious what was happening and who won if you are paying attention and it made the part of the movie that I was dreading, some of my favorite moments of the film. Also, as the games get more and more intense, with more on the line, the footage of them gets slower and slower. Slow-motion sports footage is nothing new, but it is done here with such care that it seems fresh. The rise in intensity versus the gradual slowing of the images creates a nice duality that works on a deeper level than if Eastwood had chosen to go louder and more bombastic. I’d never expect Eastwood to go “loud and bombastic,” but you never know. The understated nature of the film works magic during these rugby scenes and really elevates them far higher than I ever expected them to go. I had no knowledge of the outcome of the big game as well, which really helped to make this film exciting and engaging.

While the opening of the film is a little hard to grasp and comprised mostly of talking heads, patient viewers will find a feel-good film that excites as well as touches. It moves at a good pace after the opening and is one of the better films of 2009. Eastwood shows that his directorial chops are still present and I hope he continues to make film of this quality.