Rugby Run

'Invictus' starts out strong, but then devolves into a mediocre sports movie

Morgan Freeman delivers an astoundingly good performance as Nelson Mandela in Invictus, from director Clint Eastwood. The film seems like it's on its way to greatness in the beginning, with Mandela dealing with the difficulties of being South Africa's first black president.

Unfortunately, the film goes off track; by its underwhelming sporting-event finale, it has completely lost focus.

The film starts with Mandela's release from prison; a white rugby coach observes his motorcade and states that this will be the day that South Africa goes to the dogs. It's a mighty opening scene, and Eastwood follows it with effective moments, including Mandela telling his new staff that everybody, regardless of their skin color and political background, will have a chance to work in his administration. He hires white bodyguards to stand beside his black bodyguards, declaring, "The Rainbow Nation starts here ... reconciliation starts here. Forgiveness starts here, too." It's powerful stuff.

Freeman looks like the man he is playing, and he nails the accent admirably. He has Mandela's speaking pattern down, too, and the resemblance becomes even more amazing when he smiles.

Shortly after taking office, Mandela observes that the national rugby team, the Springboks, are having a bad season. Many black South Africans want to have the team dismantled, viewing it as a symbol of apartheid. Instead, Mandela refuses to break up the team, instead offering his full support of the team's goal of winning a World Cup title.

We then see Mandela summoning the team captain, François Pienaar (played well by Matt Damon), to his office. This is where the movie begins to shift focus from the Mandela administration to the Springboks' road to glory. Unfortunately, watching a ragtag group of guys become a formidable sports force—a formula repeated so many times in cinema—pales in comparison to the prospects of a focused Mandela biopic.

The rugby matches take more prominence, and the Mandela role is reduced to a lot of quick, cutesy scenes of him watching games on television or from the stands. In real life, the team did make a miracle run with Mandela's support, and that fact certainly merits a place in the movie. But I can't help but wish the rugby element were more secondary; it would have been nice to see more of the political unrest that Mandela faced in his first days as a world leader.

One of the problems for American audiences will be getting emotionally involved in rugby matches, a sport that most of us don't fully understand. Eastwood doesn't take much time to explain the rules or mechanics of the game, so the shots of men scrumming have little significance or dramatic tension; it's just a bunch of guys groaning a lot and practically standing still while pushing on each other. So, as a sports movie, it's actually dull. I'm not even sure a rugby enthusiast would be impressed.

Eastwood's filming of the matches, especially the final World Cup match, is elongated by too many slow-motion shots of the crowd cheering, as if he's trying to pad his running time. Yes, he's trying to show that both whites and blacks are getting engaged in the proceedings, but it gets to the point of overkill, and Mandela's role continues to become more and more of a background thing.

The film's most jarringly bad moment occurs when Damon's character returns home with tickets for the final match, and he has an extra one for his family's black maid. The camera lingers on the woman's appreciative smiling face in a manner that I found insulting. A moment in which an airline pilot shows extraordinary team spirit is handled almost equally poorly.

This could have been a masterpiece; Mandela's story is one that desperately needs to be told. However, Invictus dodges a huge chunk of that story, and as a result, it becomes just another mediocre sports movie.

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