by Matt J. Popham
[Originally published in conjunction with St. David’s Jubilee Center summer film series.]
It’s never anything less than misguided to measure the quality of a fact-based film by its level of historical accuracy. A work of art is not a faithful reproduction of reality, but a distillation of something essential within it, and Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is no more an exacting recreation of the events surrounding the 1995 Rugby World Cup than Picasso’s Guernica is a photojournalistic depiction of Operation Rugen. And yet, for all that Invictus is a distillation – and admittedly, an entertaining one – there is something problematic in its purity.
Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham have chosen an extraordinarily complicated historical moment as their subject: Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), a former revolutionary with no governmental experience is elected the first black chief executive of South Africa, a country that, even post-apartheid, was still struggling with entrenched institutional and cultural racism, and whose population was seething with tension and enmity. Meanwhile, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), captain of South Africa’s Springboks, the national Rugby team that had come to symbolize white oppressive rule, struggles to whip his pitifully performing team into shape. Seeing an opportunity to further his goal of national reconciliation, Mandela champions the Springboks and urges nationwide support for the team, while encouraging Pienaar to push his players towards a symbolic World Cup victory, but meets with outrage and opposition from South Africa’s black population, including members of his own family and security detail.
And it’s here that the film’s historical edits become questionable, both philosophically and dramatically. Invictus wants to demonstrate the value and importance of forgiveness and unity, but in order to do that within the context of its narrative, it must portray a cruelly oppressed people as its story’s antagonists. Which is not to say that Eastwood and Peckham are entirely unsympathetic to them. From the film’s first shot, Eastwood presents the grotesque inequalities inherent in the South African system. But he glosses over the commonplace viciousness and violence that were endemic to apartheid, as well as the revolutionary politics of much of Mandela’s inner circle, making it a little too easy to regard their resistance as petty and resentful, rather than rooted in honest, valid considerations. Rather than taking the opportunity to explore the friction between forgiveness and justice, the film sidesteps in favor of easy moralizing.
Similarly, Morgan Freeman makes a wonderfully charismatic and convincing Mandela, but it’s the same saintly and sanitized Mandela the media has been selling since his release from prison. He delivers so many nuggets of wisdom so often that, at times, he seems less like a three-dimensional human than a cross between an internet meme generator and Yoda. Mandela was a master of public image and there’s no question the portrayal is faithful to his outward conduct, but there was a private and more complex man behind the image, a former prisoner of his own government, who, no doubt, faced his own internal struggles with forgiving his oppressors. Unfortunately, the film seems to have little interest in exploring those depths.
For all that, Eastwood is a capable filmmaker and he’s crafted an absorbing, if overly-long, inspirational drama. It would be unfair to chide the film simply for failing to stick to the historical facts. But by divorcing these characters and events from their complex and difficult historical context, he not only undercuts his film’s thematic message, he oversimplifies its drama, leaving us with a good film instead of a great one.