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This film will be nominated for some Oscars but won't win, fyi.
At age 80, with 30 films under his belt as a director and scores more as an actor, Clint Eastwood isn’t slowing down. He makes almost a film a year, and in recent years, those films are more often than not front-runners come Oscar time. It’s not hard to see why he maintains the pace that he does: his films belie not only his talent, but his love of the craft of filmmaking. When he makes a film that he doesn’t star in, as with this year’s Invictus or last year’s The Changeling, what’s surprising is how transparent his hand is. For a man with such an enormously weighty cultural history, for a man whose artistic strides are all over the last half of the last century, his films often contain no “Clint-ness”. There are few nods to previous films. Each film is made according to the needs of its story. Once the film starts, there’s no trading on past achievements. Eastwood rarely revisits the same ground, the way a Scorcese or a Spielberg will, seeming to prefer instead just the work itself. And why not? He gets to tell great stories, working with great people. Why would he stop?
Invictus is set in the time leading up to the 1995 World Cup of Rugby in South Africa. The Springboks, the South African national side, are allowed to compete for the first time, having been banned during the Apartheid years, but are far from a favourite. They’re not given much of a chance internationally, and they’re not loved at home, as the newly-free black population sees them as green-and-gold symbols of Afrikaaner domination. Sensing the unifying potential of a victory on their own home turf, president Mandela (Morgan Freeman) invites captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to tea, and politely asks him to win the World Cup.
What a story to tell – a true tale that would be dismissed as clichéd and obvious, were it a fiction – and what a responsibility for those telling it. Invictus is a rather ordinary film about an extraordinary true event, world history transformed or distilled into a standard sports-redeems-a-man-and-a-community story. The performances are average, for the actors playing them. Damon isn’t given much to work with: he is asked to win, and he does, he is asked to hang out with Mandela, an icon, and does. Freeman’s Mandela is exactly our conception of him: the kindly, almost doddering father of a people. While there are some few peeks at the more politically calculating side of him, which are interesting, he eventually is swept up, as is everyone in the moment, in the sheer joy of sporting victory. Both are solid, both are about what you would expect.
But what joy the victory brought to the people of South Africa! This joy is communicated to us is through 10 or 12 sweeping shots of jam-packed stadiums, full of people waving flags, jumping, leaping and shouting, done in just the most appaling CGI I have seen in years. It wouldn’t be worth mentioning, normally, these few bad shots, but they’re so bad that they’re jarring. This is also the case with some other choices, including some of the horrendously on-the-nose songs in the score, and the inclusion of some paper-thin back-patty subplots about how Mandela’s security Learn to Overcome Their Differences Because of Sports. There’s a handful of nettlesome bad choices in the film, enough that they drag it down a bit, and take the joyous edge off of what’s otherwise a fine if bog-standard semi-inspirational kind of eye-rolly sports movie. 6/10.