***/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras B-
starring Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng
screenplay by Anthony Peckham, based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin
directed by Clint Eastwood
by Walter Chaw During an awards season seemingly devoted to surveying the racial divide, Clint Eastwood's Invictus lands a glancing blow as a Reconciliation sports melodrama that avoids the hysterical outburst even as it fails to hit one out of the park. Of the two, I think I'd rather the former. Expecting a (more) self-important Hoosiers, I was pleasantly surprised by Eastwood's leisurely, cocksure, tempered-by-age stroll through the first days post-Apartheid as Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, finally playing Abraham Lincoln) is tasked with the near-impossible job of suturing a nation coming out from under a long Plantation nightmare without his administration becoming exactly what the minority Afrikaner fears. It locates sports as one quick avenue to the heart of the lowest common denominator (just as the existence of Invictus locates film as another), and it fires dual salvos at its audience by first being a sports underdog uplift flick without much sports or uplift, then in not deigning to explain the fundamentals of rugby to its American audience, instead launching a quick jab at America's reluctance to engage the worlds' pastimes (rugby and soccer, notably). What it really does for the race conversation is allow Eastwood the opportunity to at last feature Freeman in a movie designed around him as opposed to having him--as he did in Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven--function as a comparative component against which the white protagonist is memorialized and measured. Better late than never.
Against a slow burn of handing over the reigns of government from agent-of-change President de Klerk, Eastwood tells the story of how Mandela redefined national Rugby team the Springboks, long-associated with Apartheid, along racially-inclusive lines. He tells it in his now-trademark broad, lazy strokes with pronouncements predictably noble and performances predictably stuffy and prestigious. Gone, though, are the shadow-enshrouded tableaux and deadweight Paul Haggis--meaning that all of it lands without the imperious portent of crap like Flags of Our Fathers. Meaning that it's surprisingly good. Captain of the team is wooden Francois Pienaar (a beefed-up Matt Damon), who, after meeting with Mandela over a spot of tea, doesn't seem so much inspired as very subtly changed from passive indifference to passive activism.
It's less that there's anything much lacking in the performance or the writing than that Invictus lacks urgency. The United States has elected a black President of its own and whatever outraged comparisons could be made to make this story contemporary are left in what feels like a different era altogether. It's not the end of racism (far from it), but it is the end of rousing liberal tracts' ability to cause any kind of mainstream ripple. What Eastwood's done is offer a relaxed, sober look at one facet of the group mind; not even the newly racially-integrated secret service tasked with protecting Mandela can have a real love-in until the Green and Black take home the cup. Invictus stands as that peculiar animal that doesn't suck and doesn't soar--a minor film from a revered filmmaker that showcases all of said filmmaker's faults. It's stodgy, noodling, loose at the edges, and reminds most this awards season of John Hillcoat's The Road in that it feels like time has passed it by. Still, it hits a few notes in its effort to hear the music. Originally published: December 11, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner's 2.40:1, 1080p Blu-ray presentation of Invictus is beholden to an awful colour-timing that sometimes renders Morgan Freeman's salt-and-pepper hair electric blue and consistently makes the grassy rugby field look like the dull turf of a tennis court. It's been painful to see Clint Eastwood, an ostensible classicist, go with such a faddishly steely, desaturated palette on his last few films (really, from Mystic River on), but this is the first time it's actively undermined the drama--neither the Springboks nor their opponents ever truly pop from the screen--and potentially impacted the tourism industry by making South Africa seem so parched and forbidding that when the film visits the prison colony of Robben Island, there's no real aesthetic contrast to speak of. The transfer's irreproachable in and of itself, though: crisp, filmic, and technically sound. A sporadically immersive soundmix is rendered in robust 5.1 DTS-HD MA.
There's an allegedly decent picture-in-picture jambalaya of interviews and behind-the-scenes ephemera (called, barf, "Vision, Courage and Honor") that lasts the length of the feature, but all I can access for the time being are a pair of featurettes as well as a 22-minute standard-def excerpt from Richard Schickel's The Eastwood Factor, which recently aired on TCM. Mandela and Morgan do interact, on occasions documented therein, but despite the title's limited promise "Mandela Meets Morgan" (28 mins., HD) broadens its focus to include such topics as Eastwood's failed "rugby cam" innovation and his nepotistic casting of son Scott in a pivotal role. Hard-training Damon--let me dash hopes right away: no one talks about his fake nose--meanwhile meets his own counterpart Francois Pienaar in the weirdly- but perhaps fittingly-segregated "Matt Damon Plays Rugby" (7 mins., HD), and Schickel follows Eastwood around the Warner backlot like the wheezy lost puppy he is in the aforementioned teaser. A HiDef "music trailer" for Invictus that's really just the theatrical trailer with a tail-end push for the soundtrack CD added rounds out the platter. The keepcase also contains the retail DVD with a bonus Digital Copy. Originally published: June 9, 2010.
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