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If Invictus (Warner Bros.), Clint Eastwood's inspirational sports biopic about the victory of the South African rugby team during Nelson Mandela's first year in office, had been made by any other director, it would be regarded as a tedious, unfocused, underplotted movie with a single strong selling point: The casting of Morgan Freeman as Mandela. Not the performance, the casting. No one else alive is as well suited to play the great South African leader. Freeman uncannily resembles Mandela, he imitates his accent convincingly, he radiates a benevolent aura of righteousness—but when does Morgan Freeman not radiate a benevolent aura of righteousness? What ought to have been the role of Freeman's career is instead less of an acting challenge than Driving Miss Daisy. Freeman-as-Mandela is an actor all dressed up with no place to go—at least, nowhere we didn't already know he was headed.
True-life sports movies always work against the same disadvantage: Win or lose, the outcome of the game is known in advance. The only way to make the audience care is to somehow get us inside the heads of the people who were experiencing the triumph in real time. Eastwood goes to great lengths to explain why the 1995 World Cup championship was so important to South Africa: Only a few years out of the apartheid era, the nation needed a common cause for blacks and whites to rally around, and the national team, the Springboks, had historically meant nothing to black South Africans except being a symbol of segregation and oppression. Maddeningly, the movie never manages to make the championship matter to us.
Invictus, which takes its title from a Victorian poem that Mandela clung to as a source of hope during his 27 years in prison, takes one of the most genuinely inspiring moments in modern history and turns it into a high-minded plod. Every character is defined solely in terms of his (or her—but there aren't many significant hers on the premises) degree of racial nobility. Every line out of Mandela's mouth is a platitude: "Forgiveness is a powerful weapon" or "In order to build South Africa, we must all exceed our own expectations." As Mandela discusses leadership techniques over tea with the captain of the Springboks, François Pienaar (Matt Damon), both men agree on the importance of leading by example. But all either one does is lecture. "The rainbow nation starts here," Mandela scolds his bodyguards, who are prickly at first about integrating their ranks. Handing out beers to his dispirited team after a loss, Pienaar encourages them to drink up with these heartening words: "Taste it? That's the taste of defeat." Must the task of healing a divided nation fall exclusively into the hands of humorless goody-two-shoes?
It would seem hard to botch the inherently suspenseful events of the 1995 World Cup championship game, in which the underdog 'Boks fought their way back from a tie to win in an overtime squeaker. But though this film contains plenty of rugby—for viewers congenitally indifferent to sports, a lifetime's worth of rugby—Eastwood never gives his audience a basic grounding in how the sport works. For those not already in-the-know, the rules of the game remain as perplexing as those of Fantastic Mr. Fox's whack-bat. What exactly is accomplished in the scrum? What's a drop goal, and what does it mean to win a game on one? And what are the strengths and weaknesses of this particular team, other than the obvious fact that they go from playing badly to playing well after a training montage? A great sports movie—North Dallas Forty, Rocky, Breaking Away—gives its characters athletic personalities: Who's cool under pressure? Who's a choker? Who's phoning it in? Aside from Damon's Pienaar, who is himself little more than a resolute slab of muscle, the Springboks barely get personalities, period.
As a non-South African, I can't speak to the accuracy of the movie's racial politics, but they feel insultingly vague. A feel-good montage scored to a pop song that brags "I'm colorblind" smacks of self-congratulation, and the frequent paeans to equality and justice have an abstract, civics-class quality. The movie's only real suspense comes early on in a subplot about racial antagonism in the ranks of Mandela's security staff, but the Springboks' victory seems to wash all these tensions away in a rush of bonhomie. Invictus, based on a nonfiction account by John Carlin, posits Mandela's embrace of the national rugby team as a visionary moment of governance, but the movie never pauses to consider the question that must have dogged the president at the time: What if the 'Boks hadn't won the game?
Slate V: The critics on Invictus and other new releases