Gosh, Clint Eastwood will keep thinking of new ways to impress us, the cheeky little monkey. First it was the Dirty Harry and the spaghetti western characters and then he shifted to the director’s chair and ever since it’s been one different thing after another: Unforgiven; Mystic River; Million Dollar Baby; Flags of Our Fathers; Letters from Iwo Jima; Changeling and now Invictus, which tells the story of South Africa coming together for the 1995 rugby world cup. This is not a nuanced film, or even a sophisticated one. It has a story to tell and unapologetically tells it, often quite cheesily, Richard Attenborough-style. But it is probably enjoyable and rousing enough, and does feature a lovely performance by Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, which is only fair. He did make us very sad about those penguins so does rather owe us. I would also like to add this in the unlikely instance I have any Vogue readers on board today: what with Mandela’s calamitous shirts and a rugby team sponsored by Cotton Traders, I don’t think I have to tell you what a fashion nightmare this film is. My dears, I scarcely knew where to look!
The film, which is based on true events and the book by John Carlin, is set in 1994, with Mandela, having been released from his long imprisonment, now serving as the country’s first post-apartheid president. The opening shots show images of posh, snotty white boys playing rugby interspersed with shots of poor, barefooted black boys playing football on a piece of wasteland. This is not a subtle film, like I said. Anyway, racial tensions run high and Mandela’s immediate challenge is ‘balancing black aspirations with white fears’ as exemplified by his own security team, composed of new black and old white officials, who eye each other up with great hostility. Like I will say again: this is not a subtle film. Honestly, how many times do I have to say something round here? Now, although many state matters vie for Mandela’s attention — crime, poverty, unemployment, rising violence, that sort of thing — he focuses on the national rugby team, the Springboks, traditionally loved by whites and loathed by blacks, who view it as a symbol of white supremacy. Mandela summons the team’s captain, François Pienaar (Matt Damon), and puts it to him like this: if the Springboks can gain the blacks’ support and succeed in the upcoming world cup, the country will be unified and inspired (although not better dressed; one thing at a time). Pienaar is played by a blond, bulked-up Damon, but the character is so bland and featureless, he could be played by anyone. I think even I could do it.
Freeman as Mandela, though, is terrific, embodying the Mandela we know. (If there is a side to Mandela we don’t know, it is not explored here.) This Mandela is dignified, graceful, forgiving and so eloquently and prolifically wise that simply asking him to pass the salt might result in him coming back with ‘forgiveness liberates the soul’ or something similar. Still, the warmth he generates carries the first half of the film, which otherwise makes the same point — the one about blacks and whites having to get along — over and over. Some scenes exist only so that this point can be made. Again. While other scenes — most particularly ones in which white characters and black characters share a bonding moment — are so sentimental it’s almost nauseating. I suspect Eastwood is playing it down for the American market, although this isn’t to say Americans are more stupid than us, as that would be silly as well as untrue. Look how clever they are with doughnuts, for example. They had lots of different centres long before we even thought about anything other than jam
Now, the main trouble with sporting movies is that, even when the sport is a metaphor, there is still quite a lot of sport in them, and there is quite a lot of sport in this, particularly in the second half, but I did actually find it rather exciting. Weird, I know, considering I’m not interested in any sport — aside from ice-dancing, but only in the secret hope someone falls over — but there you are. The soaring, triumphant ending is predictable, but as the story is true, I don’t suppose we can complain too much in that. Can we complain, though, about the endless, fabulously clichéed reaction shots Eastwood uses during the competition’s final? Yes, I think that is a proper complaint.
Look, this isn’t a great film, and it would have been a lot better and more satisfyingly complex if, for example, Peter Morgan had scripted it, but it is probably entertaining enough. More than this I cannot say, although if you are a Vogue reader I would like to ask this: how come Mandela’s never been given a makeover? I’ve never seen anyone more ripe.