Sport as the great uniter of nations feels like a novel concept now. Just over a decade on from this feel-good rugby-based appeal from Clint Eastwood, and sport feels more fractured than ever. Perhaps it is the English game that feels that way, with intolerance and venom around every corner. Either way, Invictus has within it a focus on the great sport of rugby, and while that may take the spotlight away from what is essentially a biopic of Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman), it is at least fair to say the two are linked together by Eastwood in a way that feels dependable and interesting.
The horrid divide of apartheid and the unity of sport, that is what Invictus wishes to show frequently. Mandela, as Eastwood showcases, was a divisive figure. Freeman steps into the role with an inevitable strength behind him. His frequent collaborations with Eastwood set him off on the right path, and the performance is a strong one. Mandela presided, initially, over a nation divided. Eastwood tries to showcase this and does so rather well. Freeman embodies Mandela’s desire to live life as he always had, wandering around at night on walks to clear his mind, thinking up ways of closing the divide between his countrymen. It is when the rugby takes over that Invictus starts to falter.
It is not because Matt Damon is not comfortable in his role, nor is it because the message behind it is not a strong one, it is more because Eastwood doesn’t explain it that well. Perhaps the unbelievable truth of the tournament and the Rugby World Cup is too much to bear. Mandela’s hope that a victory for the Springboks in this tournament will unite the nation is wishful thinking and expressed as a relatively maddening gamble. His advisors and political partners surrounding him give the usual humdrum affair. The writing is not weak, but it does not explore all that much. Opening scenes relay speeches and moments from the early presidency of Mandela, the tension between two races coming together under the work of a man perceived as both a terrorist and a hero. Either way, Invictus wants to enjoy the spectacle of rugby and solve the apartheid rift. Blending the two together does not come naturally for Eastwood, but it does provide some exceptional moments that relay the intention of his work and the message he wishes to project.
Eastwood relays the hate some had for Mandela well. Tension is very much the core of Invictus, and it never really leaves. It’s always there, even on the rugby pitch that eats up so much of the running time. A biopic of Mandela was inevitable, and for Eastwood to focus on one particular moment of his history and flesh it out is far stronger a decision than to present his whole life and times. Invictus is messy in portions, it never quite straddles that link between Mandela and rugby as something beyond a wishful thinking solution to a great social divide. Even those at the time were confused and did not believe it to be possible. Who can blame them? But Eastwood does well to bring sporadic changes in tone into a film that disregards his style. We may cling to what Bird offered, but at least Invictus has another strong set of leading characters within.