Sunday, December 20, 2009

An Opportunity Lost: A Review of "Invictus"

Can I please run a Hollywood studio?

How could anyone screw up the story of Nelson Mandela achieving the seemingly impossible: uniting South Africa, a nation on the brink of savage civil war, via the 1995 Rugby World Cup? It is one of the most amazing, inspiring, exciting stories of all time, sitting squarely on the nexus between race, class, culture, ethnocentrism, language, politics, individual and collective identity, war and peace, the primal and the transcendent, and a dozen other stirring, difficult themes. How do you make a story like that...boring? And even worse, how do you make a story like that boring when you have all-star Morgan Freeman playing Mandela, and super-stud Matt Damon playing Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team (the Springboks)? And how do you make it boring when it revolves around the world's most exciting team sport?

Well, there is really only one way to make it boring: go into production with a mediocre script, get a mediocre directing job, and then get a mediocre editing job. Freeman and Damon are great as usual, but their performances can't redeem the other problems. (Damon is curiously underutilized here; he is almost a supporting actor). The result is a six out of ten movie, which - given the real life story behind it - should have been a nine or ten out ten.

I was going to write out a long review here, but I'm almost too upset to do so. The short version is:

1.) The acting performances (minus Freeman's and Damon's) are mediocre.

2.) This picture fails to adequately ram home, concisely and dramatically, what should have been its primary focus points, for example, how and why exactly rugby came to symbolize the apartheid regime in the minds of black South Africans, how it functioned in white (and particularly Afrikaaner) culture, what white fear really felt like and what the stakes for the country really were, etc. Instead, the movie meanders, and hints, and meanders again, and suggests, and meanders yet again, and just doesn't hit those emotional peaks like it should have. It often even relies on character dialogue to try to describe some of these themes, instead of showing them with dramatic scenes.

3.) The All-Blacks Jonah Lomu, in real life, is a 6'5 monster who towered over the opposition. The guy they chose to play him here looks like he's about 5'11 or something. As a result, the visual support of the sub-story line of the Springboks having to stop a one-man wrecking crew suffers.

4.) The script does not make adequately clear beforehand that the grand finale of the movie - the match against the All-Blacks - is actually the World Cup final.

5.) The film takes too much time depicting Mandela as a saint. In fact, the movie seems torn between being a movie which tells the story of how Mandela united the country through the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and being a character study of Nelson Mandela. It does neither particularly successfully, but conceivably would have done a good job of one or the other.

6.) This movie could have used a strong character as an antagonist to Mandela. Instead, Mandela's "foil" was a couple of grumpy black advisers and his sourpuss daughter, who seemed to put up only token protest.

7.) The music chosen is ridiculous, especially the sappy ballad prior to the big game.

8.) The shots of the rugby games were unbelievably fake; the movie didn't even come close to showing the true physicality, brutality, and demands of the game. It looked like everyone was taking it easy on everyone else. Also, how many shots were there looking up from the ground in the scrum? One or two would have been fine - not seven or eight. And why didn't we get to see Damon running with or passing the ball in the games? He's playing the captain of the team - how about we see him leading the charge on the pitch, instead of just shouting at guys after a try is scored? Instead, we see him pushing once in a scrum, with all the other shots involving other guys. Bizarre.

That's probably enough. Yeah, I'm upset. The story behind "Invictus" is epic; the movie based on it should have been epic, too. Instead, it is more or less a snoozer: a mediocre script directed and edited in mediocre fashion, featuring too many mediocre acting performances, resulting in a movie lacking the emotional peaks and valleys that all great movies have. Clint Eastwood was simply not the guy to direct this movie, and they should have used a different screenplay. This was an opportunity lost, for sure.


E said...

That's disappointing to hear. At least my expectations won't be high when I get around to watching it :)

Chris Norris said...

I trust your critique Tal. Sounds horrendous, but then again no-one has been able to do our glorious game justice on the big screen.

Out of the hollywood set I think only Vin Diesel and Russell Crowe would have the nouse to make it realistic, being avid rugby followers.

To me the whole premise of the film sounds doomed before it starts.


Tal said...


I hear Daniel Craig's a big rugby guy, too.

But as I said, I don't see the film's failures as resulting from Matt Damon or Morgan Freeman. The flaws are deeper than that. I mean...the film was directed by Clint Eastwood, who turns EIGHTY this year, and it shows. This film should have been punchy, dramatic, deeply emotional, etc. Instead, it was mostly blah...

Stephen Pallavicini said...

Tal, here is the New York times take on the film. They like it and heap praise on Eastwood. I have not seen the film so I can't comment.

Tal said...


I just read the NY Times piece. Figures. And by the way, "Letters from Iwo Jima" was boring, too. Basically, since "Unforgiven", it's been downhill for Eastwood as a director. Each Eastwood film is more boring than the last.

Here's what I mean about emotional impact: "The Blood Diamond". That had emotional impact. "The Departed". "Gladiator". "The Proposition". They all had big moments. Great movies are like great songs - there is an underlying aggression to them, a sort of ruthlessness in how they attack and manipulate you. There is nothing really hazy or blurred; they are focused on the visceral in some way or other. And I just don't see how "Invictus" is in that league at all. Maybe I'm missing something...

Jewelz said...


I don't think you are missing something... it is similar to the movie 'Pearl Harbor'. It was muddled with unnecessary dialogue and scenes which diluted the story. Another rugby movie, 'Forever Strong', the story of Larry Gelwix and Utah's Highland HS rugby team has the same problem.

I still like Eastwood though. Loved Gran Torino.

Anonymous said...

You perfectly described every feeling I had through the movie. I was waiting and waiting to feel ambition and drama from the team. To me it was a movie about a bunch of guys who hang out, work out together, and catch a few drinks now and then. Suddenly they wake up to find themselves winning the...what was that? The World Cup final?

I would have thought that hammering into the audience would have been easy with remarkable material like this.

Stephen Pallavicini said...

I finally got around to renting Invictus. Each time I rented a video I would pass it by, remembering your negative critique. After watching it I reread your critique and as much as I like a good argument I have to agree with you. It could have been so so much better. Truly a lost opportunity. All the nuances and drama of that moment in history were glossed over.