(by Dustin Putman
Every director as prolific and typically reliable as Clint Eastwood (2004's "Million Dollar Baby," 2006's "Letters from Iwo Jima," 2008's "Changeling," 2008's "Gran Torino") is bound to have an off-day, but his latest film, "Invictus," is so alarmingly amateurish and insultingly simplistic it is as if a first-time, no-talent helmer has chosen "Clint Eastwood" as his pseudonym. Based on the book "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation" by John Carlin (and by "based," meaning "taken the most general, homogenized ideas from"), the film is so shameless in its all-encompassing goals to inspire and pull the heartstrings that it ends up doing neither. Instead, "Invictus" makes a mockery of itself, generating laughs where there shouldn't be any and turning truth into a soppy, naively displayed "Can't-We-All-Just-Get-Along" plea for racial harmony and acceptance. Article continues below
Upon his 1990 release from a 27-year stint in prison, anti-Apartheid activist Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) sets upon building a multi-racial democracy in his country. Elected President of South Africa, he decides to actively support the almost all-white professional rugby team, joining forces with dedicated coach Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) and vowing to take them to the 1995 World Cup as a way of finally, once and for all, resting racial tensions and uniting his land as one.
"I have a very large family—42 million," says Nelson Mandela in just one of the many quaint dime-store phrases he uses in "Invictus," a good-for-nothing snapshot of history too incessantly smarmy, self-satisfied and negligibly scripted to work as anything other than bad moviemaking. If one is hoping to learn more about who Mandela is by seeing the film, think again; he is rendered tediously unblemished by the script, a two-dimensional martyr whose past is never discussed, whose future is left untouched, and whose present consists of him sitting around looking patient and occasionally quoting poetry in voiceover while being waited on by a cattle call of female assistants. Curiously, wife Winnie never once makes an appearance or is referred to by name.
If rugby was the way into the hearts of those aforementioned 42 million people, then more power to ‘em. As portrayed here, it is but a head-scratching game crossing soccer with football and mosh-pitting. The rules are never explained for laymen. The games—what we see of them—are so choppily edited and uninvolving that a single full play is not properly shown and one or two wins lead to the championship finals. The players are faces in a crowd, the only two bothered to be credited by name in the end credits being the sole black player, Chester Williams (McNeil Hendricks), and the coach, played by Matt Damon (2009's "The Informant!"). The South African population as a whole are depicted as simpletons who cannot think for themselves and whose feelings of turmoil and conflict will magically vanish the moment the rugby team wins the World Cup. If that weren't enough, director Clint Eastwood inserts a song into the proceedings titled "Colorblind," performed by Overtone and Yolandi Nortje, so saccharine and ignorantly on-the-nose that it prompts huge sudden guffaws during said sequence. It has to be seen and heard to be believed.
While Morgan Freeman (2007's "The Bucket List") looks the part of Nelson Mandela, he sounds like himself trying—and failing—to sound South African. Because Freeman goes untested and has nothing dramatically pressing to perform, little is left to remember him other than that pesky accent. As for Damon, his character of Francois Pienaar is written with such an emptiness that all we learn about him throughout is that he has parents and a wife, and is the coach of the rugby team. It's a forgettable role with no meat to it; clearly the only reason Damon accepted it was because Eastwood was attached as director.
The finale is, indeed, set at the World Cup, and this is where "Invictus," already an ineffectual waste of time, pulls out all the stops in its pursuit to become one of the year's most unlikely worst films. As the game plays out, Mandela cheers from the crowds, and native South Afrikaners stop to watch televisions at bars or listen to the game on car radios, Eastwood, not yet satisfied with the amount of clichés he has squeezed into each frame, chooses to shoot his last ten minutes predominately in slow-motion. This stylistic decision is so blatantly manipulative and takes things so far over the top that it leaves one with their mouth wide open, agape at the level of pomposity on display. Furthermore, watching an entire rugby team stand in a pile and scrum—in, again, slow-motion—is one of the more silly and unintentionally juvenile images seen a motion picture in months. Making "The Blind Side" look like a bouquet of refined subtlety in comparison, "Invictus" barrels past the deep end into grade-school-level concepts and artificial emotions without a moment's thought to the complexity of its real-world issues. The only thing authentic about this film is its sheer sap-induced egotism.