Saw the new Clint Eastwood movie Invictus on Friday. He directed and produced it, which is usually cause for celebration these days. It stars Matt Damon as actual South African rugby captain Francoise Pienaar and Morgan Freeman as actual South African president Nelson Mandela. Because I can’t stand rugby – to me, it’s a team sport seemingly entirely free of grace and mainly packed with big fellas running into one another – I had no idea South Africa won the rugby World Cup in 1995, but they did, and it was clearly a big deal on two levels: one, they were a bit shit, and two, they were mostly white, a fact that became conspicuous when Apartheid ended and Mandela launched his vision of a rainbow nation. Thanks to Invictus, I now know this. I also know that Pienaar is a man without a personality but with a wife, a mum and a dad, and that Mandela was a bit lonely and a workaholic and liked to have a bracing walk at 4am every day without fail. There’s not a tremendous amount more to learn.
I thought Invictus was underwhelming and dramatically thin. It is handicapped by being a sports movie. Sport movies don’t usually work – certainly not team sports anyway. Boxing has a cinematic quality, so does running, albeit only in slow motion. Football simply cannot be captured in drama, and nor, it seems, can rugby. (I love This Sporting Life, but then again, there’s not that much rugby in it.) Beyond the sport, it’s sort of about Nelson Mandela getting on with taking the reins of power, which involves making black and white security men work together, and attending some meetings, and making some speeches in his iconically slow, measured English. Freeman, who looks nothing like him, makes a decent stab of doing the voice. Damon, who looks nothing like Pienaar, does the same. It’s not so much acting, as impressionism.
Anthony Peckham, the screenwriter, seems so enamoured and dazzled by the iconic celebrity of his two main characters, he doesn’t bother to fill in any of the other ones, and yet, one of the characters speaks very slowly and the other one says nothing of any consequence on or off the field. In order to be swept up by the film’s broad-brushstroke drama you have to be very easily pleased by the fact that post-Apartheid South Africa was nicer than Apartheid South Africa, which in a fundamental sense it was, but don’t expect any subtlety or surprise. The initially awkward white rugby players sit young black kids from a township on their shoulders in a sequence that feels authentically like a bank advert. The white security guards learn to like the black security guards, united not by anything dramatic – as, sadly, nothing dramatic happened to Mandela in 1995, despite the fear of incident at his public appearances and a hokey low-flying aircraft that we know posed no threat – but by, well, getting on with their largely boring work in small offices. I think you are expected to admire and forgive Pienaar’s white family when they take their black maid to the Cup Final, but this presupposes you see it as redemptive rather than patronising, which is how it comes across.
Clint Eastwood is a monumentally competent director and that’s not faint praise. He is not showy or pretentious or tricksy, he does not grandstand, and he famously shoots as little film as he can, but you cannot argue with his best work. I thought Letters From Iwo Jima was brilliant, for instance, as was Unforgiven, obviously: two seriously good genre movies. Invictus proves that he is not scared of big stadium scenes. But he fails to make the rugby matches exciting, resorting to slow motion, naturally, when in a corner, and the obligatory scenes of people watching the telly. Too late he decides to show us the scrum from underneath and turns up the volume on the animalistic grunting, but this seems tokenistic, and what’s he trying to say? That it’s a brute, primal sport? Where has this observation been hiding? This Sporting Life begins under a scrum; its first thought is of the violence and the machismo of rugby. Invictus wants us to buy rugby not as a contact sport, but as a metaphor for community. See how the little black boy is eyed suspiciously by white security guards outside the stadium but ends up celebrating with them when the Springboks win the Cup – this is no more profound than when the grey ash descends across Los Angeles at the climax of Volcano, and, hey, black and white people are turned one colour.
This film’s heart is in the right place, but it’s deadly dull, its 12A certificate earned only because of strong but infrequent language. And, next to District 9, a science-fiction film made in South Africa by South Africans and starring South Africans, it has nothing to say about South Africa beyond facts, figures and cliche. And its two key South African roles are taken by North Americans. Meanwhile, both of these North Americans have been ludicrously Oscar nominated for their work. I admire them both, but this is not their best work, and nominations seem to be forthcoming because a) it’s Clint Eastwood, and b) it’s Nelson Mandela.
Everybody else seems to like it, however, so I must be missing something.