REVIEW: “Invictus” (**)

Posted by · 8:41 am · November 30th, 2009

InvictusThere’s really no arguing the fact that South Africa’s victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup was an inspirational moment of collaborative triumph for a country healing the wounds of the past.  The occasion was an against-all-odds statement of progress and togetherness.  It announced to the world that a nation had chosen to look to the future, not to the past.  And the echoes undeniably reverberate in the crossroads the United States finds itself in this very day.

These themes are apparent in Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus,” but they do not have the elevating quality that might have rendered them truly affecting.  A flat narrative and tedious structure ironically hold the audience at arm’s length from a story of inclusion and camaraderie.  A confused central relationship is done no favors by a lack of true conflict and dramatic tension (the latter due largely to swift third act resolution).  The film simply chugs along at a capable but unremarkable pace, and given the subject matter, it’s staggering how arbitrary the proceedings ultimately feel.

This might be seen as par for the course when it comes to Eastwood.  He is an unfussy director concerned with streamlined, no-frills visual story telling, and at times, refreshingly so.  But “Invictus” doesn’t feel like the work of a man invigorated by his focused process.  It almost feels like the work of an exhausted artist, letting any number of elements slide on the way to completing a toothless, benign depiction of a momentous occasion.

Morgan Freeman stars in the role Eastwood has said he seemed born to play.  Nelson Mandela, freshly freed from the shackles of incarceration (27 years of them on Robben Island prison off the Southwest coast of South Africa), returns to the mainland in the film’s early moments to run for election in a post-Apartheid climate.  Newspaper headlines later read, “He can win an election, but can he run a country?”  Concerns of assassination attempts from fringe extremists are prevalent in Mandela’s security detail.  The Obama parallels couldn’t be more apparent.

The audience is served the most facile visual cue of South Africa’s division early on as a road cuts through the scenery, Mandela’s entourage plowing along.  On one side, a group of whites plays Rugby.  On the other, a group of black children.  The white coach barks at his players to take note: “This is the day our country went to the dogs!”  Eastwood, and screenwriter Anthony Peckham, want to make sure you get it.

(from left) Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in InvictusFrom there the film becomes a story of political and human strategy.  In Mandela’s view, the best way to bring the country together is through a World Cup victory for the Springbok Rugby team, a nearly all-white squad largely hated by the country’s black citizens for its echoes of the not-so-distant Apartheid past.  Matt Damon stars as the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar, who befriends Mandela on this quest for forgiveness and progress through the symbolism of sport.

Freeman is rather commanding as Mandela, if only due to the striking image he casts.  The accent is dodgy, and Freeman was never one to disappear inside a character, but he carries the role most impressively in the quieter moments, some of them comedic, in fact, a look here, a dart of the eye there.

Damon, on the other hand, has little to do beyond the general cheer-leading inspirational huddle speeches you’d expect from a sports drama.  He’s just there, a pawn on Eastwood’s chess board, moved to and fro when needed, but never fully realized as an individual.

Pienaar’s home situation, meanwhile, is played up for a thematic touch with a family, especially a father, stuck in the past, not to mention the presence of a black housekeeper on the outside of the family looking in (and ultimately, of course, accepted into the fold via a shiny fourth ticket to the World Cup final).  But these characters never once reach further than the simplistic devices they’re meant to be.

The entire third act of the film is focused exclusively on the World Cup final with New Zealand’s All Blacks (an ironic team name that would almost seem another facile manifestation if it weren’t true).   And heaven help anyone who doesn’t understand the rules of an already complicated sport, because Eastwood doesn’t appear compelled to film it with any actual sense of drama or convention.  Things just seem to happen at random and before long, the game is won.  For some that might come off as artistic.  But it rings closer to lazy.

And drumming up terrorist suspense and 9/11 imagery around the SAA “Good Luck” flyover during the game’s opening moments frankly comes off a bit tasteless.

Morgan Freeman in InvictusThe title of the film, of course, reflects the William Earnest Henley poem that roused Mandela’s spirits during his time on Robben Island.  Taxing repetition of the poem toward the film’s end by Freeman, ghostly over the soundtrack, makes for a few irksome moments.  The power of its words are meant to resonate during a Springbok visit to Robben Island, but again, the easy approach to filming this sequence — the specter of Mandela chained to the earth, peering up at Pienaar, eyes locked — it’s ultimately laughable.

If one is talking Oscars with a film like “Invictus,” and given the positioning, of course this is meant to be on the table, then it’s worth considering that even fans of the piece couldn’t possibly, credibly consider it one of Eastwood’s top tier works.  An expanded Best Picture category and enough traditionalist voting methods will likely secure it a spot in the field, and Freeman has enough gravitas to coast to a most undeserved nomination, but beyond that, nothing rings true.  Best Director?  It would be surprising.  Best Supporting Actor?  The acting branch would be voting on autopilot.  Below the line?  Not enough frills.

But away from the black hole of awards considerations, it’s difficult not to see “Invictus” as a warning that Eastwood could be on the precipice of a Woody Allen-like plunge following a very commendable latter-career burst.  Every one of Allen’s films as of late, throughout his career, have been about something.  But the craft has worn thin (save for last year’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”).  That’s where I’d say Eastwood finds himself, despite what critical apologists might say.  A few moments away from the fray might do him good.

But who’s listening to me?

→ 41 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

41 responses so far

  • 1 11-30-2009 at 8:42 am

    ninja said...

    “A flat narrative and tedious structure ”

    So, you`ve seen the trailer, you`ve seen the movie. Just about what I expected.

  • 2 11-30-2009 at 8:51 am

    Suzanne said...

    I couldn’t be any less excited by this one. Sounds like another “Changeling,” lead acting recognition but nothing more.

  • 3 11-30-2009 at 8:52 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Obviously I knew this was coming, but a big “ouch” all the same. I must say your review taps into every fear I’ve had about the project since reading the script.

    Anyway, an excellent read, and kudos to you for standing up to the kid-glove treatment Eastwood’s been getting of late from even the most incisive members of the critical community. Dare I say even whip-smart Anne seemed to be making excuses for it on Friday’s podcast?

  • 4 11-30-2009 at 9:09 am

    ninja said...

    “The acting branch would be voting on autopilot. ”

    Wasn`t the whole buzz about Invictus as the frontrunner since it was announced, based on “It`s Eastwood so it`ll win” autopilot? I hope that mixed buzz wakes them up.

    One of the scariest things that I read in an insider review was calling Bones “too creative for its own good.” That totally scared me because creativity should not be something that sabotages the movie. Derivative, generic for its own good would make sense. But creative? or too creative? Heaven knows there isn`t much creativity left in Hollywood these days, hence why too much of it is seen by some as almost a bad thing. Sorry for straying off topic but that kind of thinking on some industry people`s part makes me worried that uncreative entires such as Invictus will get the pass over more interesting ones just because the former`s familiarity makes people confortable and the latter`s boldness doesn`t.

  • 5 11-30-2009 at 9:19 am

    "Julianstark" said...

    Kris, do you think that Freeman could win Oscar number two?

    Personally, I hope not. Performance-wise, he didn’t deserve the one he got for M$B. Sorry. I just don’t think that someone deserves an Oscar for punching a guy and babbling about holes in his socks. That’s about as much as he did in that film

  • 6 11-30-2009 at 9:33 am

    James D. said...

    About what I expected. Hopefully it falls Gran Torino style and allows a more deserving film to sneak in.

  • 7 11-30-2009 at 9:45 am

    Encore Entertainment said...

    I’m completely unaffected by the two stars, I didn’t care in the first place. Oh well. Whatever.

  • 8 11-30-2009 at 10:07 am

    Ripley said...

    Thanks for review Kris, I’ve read your reviews since OW days and we only agree in tastes about 50% of the time so I will probably love this film.

  • 9 11-30-2009 at 10:27 am

    Michael said...

    for some reason I still feel compelled to see this movie, if only for a train wreck of mediocrity experience. But your review (and lots of others that have been popping up) confirm what I thought of from the beginning – that this was second tier Clint Eastwood delivered on autopilot. I generally despise “sports” movies so I really don’t think I am going to like this movie since it is about a subject that doesn’t interest me – yet I still want to see it. I wonder how many other people will be compelled to see the film as well when it gets released wide. Rugby is not a very popular sport in the U.S. so I don’t think it will have Blind Side-level success but Clint Eastwood can seem to pull a rabbit out of the hat with his films recently so I am curious how it will play with general audiences.

  • 10 11-30-2009 at 10:30 am

    tintin said...

    Changeling was greattt!!!

  • 11 11-30-2009 at 10:39 am

    McGuff said...

    Comparisons to Changeling might be a touch easy, seeing as though that film’s downfall was a lengthy and clunky third act, while Kris laments Invictus’ quick and tidy one. And it’s not as if Clint’s ability to get Academy recognition for his film’s lead was new with Angie, either — it’s stock for Eastwood at this point.

  • 12 11-30-2009 at 10:54 am

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    It’s not quick and tidy from a pacing standpoint, mind you, but from a story standpoint. And by the way, I quite liked Changeling.

  • 13 11-30-2009 at 10:55 am

    Mr. Gittes said...

    Hereafter is a stinker, too. Mark my words.

  • 14 11-30-2009 at 11:33 am

    lovespike said...

    Why do you feel Morgan Freeman’s nom would be undeserved? Would a best pic or best director be undeserved, u didn’t speak to that. Who else this year that is in the running for oscar noms do you think would be undeserved or is he the only one?

  • 15 11-30-2009 at 11:34 am

    Darbicus said...

    I’m listening, kris. I’ve been saying that Eastwood’s anemic filmmaking style has been getting old for quite some time now. Much of his work post Million Dollar Baby has been perfunctory at best, in my opinion, simply going through the motions of making an awards caliber, “Eastwood” film.

    Your Woody Allen comparison is spot on, albeit with one caveat. Allen always had a distinct narrative style that could be applied to the various situations that his films would present. Eastwood, to me anyway, has never had that narrative style, save for the bare bones approach I mentioned earlier.

    From what I’ve seen and read, it sounds like Invictus could have been directed by just about anyone and you wouldn’t have known the difference.

  • 16 11-30-2009 at 11:38 am

    red_wine said...

    I absolutely adore Eastwood. And I think that his clout with the Academy is over-estimated or rather the worth of his films is under-estimated. I like not love Mystic River but I think Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima are triumphs for Eastwood, probably his two best directed films.

    He received 3 Best Picture/Best Director nominations this decade because his movies were that good, not because it was Eastwood. So I’ll definitely say I’m somewhat looking forward to it, inspite of the dull trailer and your admittedly well-reasoned out scorn for the movie.

  • 17 11-30-2009 at 11:39 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Would a best pic or best director be undeserved, u didn’t speak to that.”

    A two-star pan of the film didn’t make that clear to you, Lovespike? How much does Kris need to spell things out?

  • 18 11-30-2009 at 11:50 am

    The Other James D. said...

    My new dream is to see Michael Stuhlbarg snag Freeman’s spot. But I at least hope enough people give more #1 slots to Jeremy Renner than Freeman.

    And I concur, Julianstark. I always knew he would win ever since I heard about “M$B”, because he was overdue, but after I saw Clive Owen in “Closer”, I desperately hoped he’d pull an upset. Freeman deserved the Oscar way back when for “Street Smart”, among a few others. His winning this year would be an absolute travesty.

    However, I am rather dreading the NBR awards on Thursday. Ya know they love them some Clunt, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it won either Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, or Adapted Screenplay. I feel it might win at least one, and I’m hoping it would be Screenplay–only because the Screenplay winners are *constantly* snubbed. If it doesn’t win any of those, it’s sure to either get Clunt a lifetime achievement award and land on the year’s Top 10 anyway….Gross.

  • 19 11-30-2009 at 11:51 am

    The Other James D. said...

    *Either get Clunt or Freeman….

  • 20 11-30-2009 at 12:10 pm

    lovespike said...

    @guy, you didn’t write the words so I wasn’t referring to you I was asking to make a point not for the actual answer. The point that black actors are never safe imo. It has been my impression that some majority actors or directors get a free pass when minority actors/directors wouldget absolutely torn to shreds. That was what I was trying to get across, your assertion is that no best pic/best dir. was implied in the review, I just find it interesting that the undeserved adj. wasn’t used with best pic. If that seems irrational or stupid to you thats fine, but u should keep the condescending comments to a minimum.

  • 21 11-30-2009 at 12:16 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    Oh for fuck’s sake, the race card is applicable here, too?

    I don’t think Kris’s panning of “Invictus” or Guy’s negative review of “Precious” indicate anything of the sort.

    If you’ll notice, he was even more critical of Eastwood in his review. And if you carefully read certain paragraphs, you’ll see his consistent derision of Eastwood’s lazy direction as an obvious inference that he wouldn’t find an Eastwood directorial nom deserving either.

    Oy gevalt.

  • 22 11-30-2009 at 12:16 pm

    Ivan said...


    Jeff Bridges/Crazy Heart*
    George Clooney/Up in the Air
    Daniel Day Lewis/Nine
    Colin Firth/A Single Man
    Jeremy Renner/The Hurt Locker

    Alec Baldwin/It´s Complicated
    Woody Harrelson/The Messenger
    Alfred Molina/An Education
    Christopher Plummer/The Last Station
    Christoph Waltz/Inglourious Basterds*

  • 23 11-30-2009 at 12:29 pm

    lovespike said...

    @other james d.: As I said in my previous post that is my impression. I don’t believe in the term race card, I don’t use race strategically to win an argument, I don’t call someone racist because they don’t agree with my views. But my truth is that black and white actors are generally treated differently, from the volume of work attained to how their performances are assessed, that’s what i see. Oh, by the way, I can read.

  • 24 11-30-2009 at 12:39 pm

    Loyal said...

    “It’s difficult not to see “Invictus” as a warning that Eastwood could be on the precipice of a Woody Allen-like plunge following a very commendable latter-career burst.”

    Clint’s “Hereafter” seems to follow perfectly with what you’re warning us about.

  • 25 11-30-2009 at 12:43 pm

    Maxim said...

    I was with you up until you brough up Woody Allen. You are simply missing the point and are doing this to such a degree that I, once again have to doubt your judgement.

    Look here, Allen’s craft is as good as it’s ever been (and it’s been quite excellent). Even in a movie like Scoop which is not as good as his best work, I personally found the opening that depicted the afterlife is something theatrical to be wickedly inventive. The “craft” in Melinda and Melinda” is great too.

    And I mean, he hired Philip Glass to write a score for him. Isn’t it a sign of someone who’s, at the very least trying?

    Apart from the fact that his movies have unfair reputation the fact that he made “Match Point” (a masterpiece) and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (a very good film) prove that he’s got it in him. He has it in him! That’s what we should concentrate and not his love of writing and making movies which will have different milegade not just due to their actual worth but in sheer difference in taste.

    As for Eastwood, never been my cup of tea but I’ll hold off comment on “Invictus”. For the respect of those films that I did like (“Perfect World”) if for no other reason. I does, seem like Oscarbait of the worst sort though.

    I will say this, however, in this decade he has been very overpraised. More power to him I guess.

  • 26 11-30-2009 at 2:20 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    so kris, when Inglourious Basterds pushes into the top 10, what film do you think it will be replacing, this one?

  • 27 11-30-2009 at 2:31 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    lovespike: I won’t address you if you think race played into something as simple as me saying Freeman’s nomination will be undeserving.

    But regarding the other two aspects, Best Pic and Best Director, I think the case has been made by those speaking for me here. Freeman won’t deserve the nod because it’s something of a sleepwalk performance. I just happened to state as much there because, unlike the rest of the review, as it pertains to the film and Eastwood’s direction, I didn’t spend a bunch of time EXPLAINING why I CLEARLY think any nomination would be deserving.

    And yet, with all that said, I still have no idea why you’re attempting to have this conversation.

    Maxim: It’s none of my concern whether you doubt my judgment or not. I’m not in the business of persuading people. But if you want to defend lazy schlock like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Scoop, Anything Else, Hollywood Ending, etc. as anything other than autopilot filmmaking, and want to think, therefore, that a comparison to Eastwood’s equally artistically vacant recent work is uncalled for, then we’ll just agree to disagree.

    Additionally, Eastwood clearly “has it in him” as well. But I’m in agreement with you: he has been the most grossly overpraised director of the decade.

    Req: If.

  • 28 11-30-2009 at 2:38 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    It’s very refreshing that so many here, including the staff, share similar perspectives on the wildly overrated achievements of Eastwood. At a majority of other blogs and/or forums, one often gets instantly pounced on when even attempting to criticize anything he’s done.

    …Especially “Gran Torino”. It’s hilarious when every single fanboy whips out the “well, Manohla Dargis loved it” card.

  • 29 11-30-2009 at 3:05 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    She speaks for us all, don’t cha know?

  • 30 11-30-2009 at 3:11 pm

    The Other James D. said...


    I really want to create a Bingo card of retorts people have for when someone disagrees with their opinions. It would be a fun distraction during the awards fray. Anyone dig?

  • 31 11-30-2009 at 7:42 pm

    Lazarus said...

    I’d also like to see a Bingo card made up solely of cliches used by critics to champion everything that Clint releases.

    You can add me to the list of detractors.

  • 32 11-30-2009 at 7:59 pm

    Paul Outlaw said...

    I’m getting queasy thinking about Gran Torino again. Why must people remind me of that thing?

  • 33 11-30-2009 at 8:41 pm

    Alex said...

    Gran Torino was entertaining-awful. I enjoyed it on some bizarre level. I think Lord Dargis loves a movie because not everyone else did. She doesn’t just have slightly eclectic tastes.

  • 34 11-30-2009 at 9:53 pm

    head_wizard said...

    Sounds like the trailer looked, basically dull, even with its defenders it looks like the movie won’t win any awards at least.

  • 35 11-30-2009 at 10:33 pm

    daveylow said...

    If anything feels like it was made for award season, Invictus does. If Richard Attenborough had made this–and it’s really his type of material–it would be panned. Where is Pauline Kael when we need her to tell the truth like it is? I’m joking in part because maybe I’ll like this film but right now I’m really skeptical.

  • 36 11-30-2009 at 10:35 pm

    Glenn said...

    I didn’t care to see it before and still don’t care to see it now. I hate rugby, don’t care for Clint Eastwood in general (although I really liked M$B and Mystic River) and the whole enterprise just sounds of formulaic and cynically precise.

  • 37 12-03-2009 at 11:45 am

    Piet said...

    If you play less with dolls and more with balls.. You would have known what rugby is all about..!

    Ps.. OverTone is Afrikaans not Dutch.. How can we believe what you say about the movie and soundtrack if you cannot even get there home country right..!

    Dutchman comes from Europe your Idiot..! And by the way.. Which movie have you ever directed? Any songs on itunes we can download on you??

  • 38 12-04-2009 at 4:09 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    As a South African myself, I also get irked when people blur SA and Dutch identities, but what is your comment in response to?

    Nowhere is Kris’s review is Overtone even mentioned. I can’t see any error.

  • 39 12-08-2009 at 3:44 pm

    Jordan Raup said...

    Finally saw this film, absolutely trash. So hamfisted, tedious, and repetitive. District 9 was more realistic.

  • 40 1-12-2010 at 5:09 am

    forclint said...

    Jordan, it’s kind of sad that you criticise the movie like that and you don’t even know it’s aTRUE story. How much more realistic can you get?

  • 41 3-06-2010 at 7:27 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    “Best Supporting Actor? The acting branch would be voting on autopilot.”

    Oh look, they did. Sorry, I just can’t get over how utterly LAZY the Best Supporting Actor choices were this year.