I came into Invictus (2009) with high hopes; I enjoy inspirational sports films. I enjoy the genre of films whose plot arc is the overcoming of injustice. And I especially enjoy them even more when they are true stories. By all appearances, Invictus—portraying the true story of Nelson Mandela and the South African Rugby team—promised to be such a film. I was disappointed. Therefore let me give you seven reasons why I didn’t like Invictus:
1. Bad Accents: I’ve got a decent ear for accents, and while I’m not always perfect at performing them, I’m pretty quick to recognize slip ups in others. With every slip-up of an accent during a performance, suspension of disbelief is shattered. I am constantly reminded by the actor on screen that he is acting, which is the very thing I ought not to be thinking about. Suffice it to say that I was let down by both Damon and Freeman in this film, and found myself watching their lips and listening to their accents rather than the dialogue.
2. Average Acting: There were moments, looking at Morgan Freeman, where I thought to myself, “Wow! He really looks like Nelson Mandela!” Even my wife remarked to me, “I’ve always thought Morgan Freeman would play Nelson Mandela.” The stars seemed aligned for this performance. However, in addition to the bad accent, all I could see for much of the time was Morgan Freeman desperately restraining himself from infusing some of his normal passion into Mandela’s inspired words. It looked like hard work being so bland. Unlike, say, Meryl Streep’s performance as Julia Child, where I completely forgot that Meryl Streep was on screen, I was almost continuously reminded that this was Morgan Freeman.
3. Cheesy Song Montage: In the middle of the movie there was a song montage where the team played, Mandela politicked, the people watched Rugby while drinking, and all the while a male voice crooned in the background. Of course, when well done (as I reflect I realize that it’s a fixture of all inspirational sports movies) it’s an exceptionally powerful technique for advancing the story. But the tone of the song must capture the drive of the film, and in this instance it robbed Invictus of the momentum it so desperately needed at that point. Here we are, building towards a political, social, and rugby climax, while a white male sings a gentle ballad in the background. I was nonplussed. In fact, I rolled my eyes as soon as he started singing, because I felt that instead of inspiring me I was experiencing an artless plea for emotional response. And the further effect of this song was that it ripped me from the context of the movie, and I found myself asking, “Am I watching a film, or a music video?”
4. Too Many Stories: The story of Nelson Mandela’s presidency is fascinating. The story of a Rugby teams rise to success is compelling. Put the two together and I can easily imagine the studio’s eyes lighting up with pleasure. If Invictus had attempted only to tell these two stories, I think the movie would have been stronger. However, in the midst of these two arcs we also learn about Mandela’s bodyguards and their struggles, the rugby team captain’s family and their racial struggles, and some slum children and their story as well. The multiplicity of stories robbed Invictus of momentum, and fed directly into complaint number 5.
5. Underdeveloped Conflict: Because the film tried to do too much, it failed to develop the conflict of the story. The richness of an inspirational sports film is in witnessing characters you care about overcome adversity—both personal and social. What did Damon’s character have to accomplish? He had a little conflict with his team, but it was never threatening to his leadership. What did Mandela have to accomplish? It was hinted that people might not ‘like’ him at first, but where did this go? Near the beginning, people boo him on the rugby pitch; at the end, they chant his name, but the progression between the two was shrouded in mystery. Did Mandela really overcome any adversity in the story? In fact, I suspect that the additionally story lines were added as a means of representing this conflict and its progression. Alas, it did not succeed.
6. Insufficient Explanation of Rugby: I still don’t know anything about rugby. I still don’t care about rugby. At the very least, I was hoping that this movie would better introduce me to the sport, since many of my friends are rugby fans. But no. All I know about rugby is what I knew beforehand—pass the ball laterally or backwards, and rugby players like to drink after their matches. Oh yes, and that little phrase, “Soccer is a gentleman’s sport played by thugs, and rugby is a thug’s sport played by gentlemen.” To which the guard in the film appropriately says, “Yes, I’ve heard that before, and it wasn’t funny the first time.” I agreed with him wholeheartedly.
7. No Jeopardy: It is impossible to be invested in the risk and jeopardy of a sports film if you have no concept of what it takes to win the game. See, in addition to introducing us to Mandela, the rugby team captain, the issues of South Africa, Mandela’s guards, and the other stories in this film, Invictus also had to introduce us to rugby. And the cumulative effect is of these many stories, the lack of rugby explanation, and underdeveloped conflict meant that when it came down to the climax of the film there was no jeopardy. I, as an audience member, did not feel that anything was at stake in the movie. And that’s the saddest thing for me, because usually even bad movies ramp up their efforts at the end to try and impress you, and here’s where Invictus drifted listlessly into the sunset. I just didn’t care what happened. And for that, I blame Clint Eastwood.
Below are some my favorite films from the sports/social action genre:
Note: with the exception of The Power of One, all are true stories.