Dare me to hate a movie, and I’ll be damned if I don’t do just that, especially when I’m also asked to forgive a bounty of head-slapping clichés simply because the director has the ability to stare down the naysayers into a stupefied silence. Invictus is simply The Mighty Ducks with Gandhi as the zamboni driver, or Little Giants featuring Mother Teresa in zebra stripes. Here, the sport is rugby, which only makes matters worse, as the game will be incomprehensible to the only people who will bother to show up for this monstrosity. Yeah, the South African team wins the World Cup in the end, but I’d have no idea had the scoreboard not flashed the final tally in bold, clear numbers, or Eastwood not resorted to the slo-mo standby. From where I sat, people formed some huge huddle, passed the ball around, and kicked it through some uprights while playing grab-ass from time to time. For all the fucking sense this made, they could have been engaging in nude wrestling for the future of mankind and I would not have been the wiser. As expected, the final match is against the Best Team in All the World, a New Zealand unit reduced to a handy symbol: the Maori superstar who grunts and powers his way forward with one dynamic set of thighs. Still, as dehumanized as they are, they’re still kindred spirits in emptiness with the South African team, even if they’re presumably the ones we care about. Thank goodness we have Matt Damon to bond with, even if he does have that funny accent.
The big game, stripped of joy, excitement, and coherence, comes about due solely to Mandela’s need to heal the country after being elected president. Rather than dismantle this once damning bulwark of apartheid, Mandela uses it to unite the races around a central point of pride and self-respect. It’s a wholly populist move, one that reveals Mandela’s understanding of the power of political symbolism. Such keen insight might mean something in a deeper, more ambitious picture, but as translated by Freeman, it’s more a ticking of the clock until the necessary third act denouement. Freeman’s Mandela is no more a flesh and blood man than had he been created by computer, and it’s a testament to his own powers of persuasion that he’s allowed to get away with it (and secure the expected Best Actor nomination). I didn’t buy this shuck and jive for a single minute, and for a film centered around such an engaging real-life personality, the film actually suffers whenever he appears. Freeman’s Mandela is in a state of perpetual winking; always more clever than anyone else in the room, not because he proves it, but because he’s not to be questioned as Africa’s Jesus. My god, the man even pours his own tea! And partakes of a nightly jog with only two bodyguards! The lone attempt to render him real – a scene involving a question about his estranged family – is brushed aside so quickly we can’t be sure it actually took place.
Given the setting and subject matter, it should come as no surprise that, outside of the rugby matches, there are but two types of scenes left us: the smiling, cheering facades of anonymous blacks as they gather around the radio or TV, and black and white members of the new administration eyeing each other warily, usually as they mumble under their breath. And yes, such silliness culminates in the only possible culmination, where the two biggest adversaries on the security detail come close to hugging after the championship match, only to agree to a hearty handshake. Elsewhere, a young black boy, whom we are led to believe is about to rob a taxi, is actually just trying to hear the game on the radio, and darn it all, is he not lifted to the sky by a once-sneering Afrikaner after the final whistle? Speaking of red herrings, what about the one where we think this shady white dude is casing the stadium for an assassination attempt, only to become an even shadier pilot we think is about to crash a jet onto the field, only to be revealed at last as the ultimate rugby fan by virtue of the cheerful message he has written on the underbelly of the plane? Regardless of the historical record, I refuse to believe this shit ever happened, and shame on Eastwood for perusing the screenplay and raising no objections. That it’s dopey is beyond dispute, but it also stands as one of the most manipulative elements of a movie that thinks little of having you in a vicious choke hold for over two hours. Why not have the mostly white rugby team visit Mandela’s former prison cell while you’re at it? Or play some Lion King shit on the soundtrack whenever black people appear, or that Ladysmith Black Mambazo from that Paul Simon record? Wait, what? Really? Fuck me again.
And does Freeman recite the poem that gave us the film’s title in a soaring voiceover? What was it old Red said as he got busy living? You goddamn right.