The poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley is the titular inspiration for this new film by Clint Eastwood, and is quoted within the film: “It matters not how straight the gate,” Henley writes, “How charged with punishments the scroll/ I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.” That any man is in control of his fate is a concept as empty as it is inspirational, so it’s fitting that the same idea is the driving force behind Invictus, a film utterly unconcerned with character development or growth.
Morgan Freeman stars as Nelson Mandela, a man a few years removed from his release from prison after 27 years and fresh off his victory as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Although Freeman was born to play Mandela, this is not the Mandela he deserves. Director Clint Eastwood’s version of the leader speaks exclusively in platitudes and inspires similarly pie-eyed rhetoric from those around him. The film provides glimpses of the man as a person — a workaholic who collapses from exhaustion; a charming-but-troubled family man — but those moments can be counted in seconds. The Mandela presented here is preoccupied with rugby and the notion that a championship rugby team from South Africa — a team with only one dark-skinned African as a member, no less — can bring unity and peace to the region. That Eastwood forces that to come true speaks to the sometime master’s increasing shamelessness.
To that end, he calls for a meeting over tea with the captain of the rugby team, Francois Pienaar (Damon), to share with him a few nuggets of poetic wisdom in the hopes that it will suddenly imbue Pienaar with the ability to win the World Cup for his country. Pienaar is seen (and only briefly, no less) as a timid team leader. As for his playing, well, it’s not altogether clear why he’s their captain to begin with. But following this fateful meeting with Mandela, his team starts to win in the preliminary World Cup matches, capturing the nation’s attention and, eventually, admiration.
How has Pienaar changed as a captain and a person to enable this winning streak? How does that connect to how Mandela’s running his new government? And most of all, how does any of this change or inspire growth in anybody? None of these questions is answered, nor does Eastwood seem bothered by the absence of those answers. As a director, he’s content to let knowing, smiling glances between men — Mandela’s divided bodyguards, members of the old and new powers alike, random people on the street — tell us that everything is OK now that the rugby team is a winner. Despite a running time of considerably more than two hours, the film coasts from a first half full of racial and political tension to a second half of melted hearts with nothing in between to indicate how that growth came to pass. We learn nothing about Mandela or Pienaar by the end that we didn’t know in the first few minutes.
Invictus exposes Eastwood’s lazy directorial choices, and unlikely screenwriter (his two prior feature credits are the silly 2001 Michael Douglas vehicle Don’t Say a Word and 1990’s direct-to-video The Assassin) Anthony Peckham’s inability to convey anything resembling a deep human connection. — Justin Strout