“On Robben Island, in Pollsmoor Prison, all of my jailers were Afrikaners. For 27 years I studied them. I learned their language. Read their books, their poetry. I had to know my enemy before I could prevail against them. And we did prevail, did we not?”
Leave it to Clint Eastwood to make even rugby look interesting. Of course, Eastwood himself would correct me and observe that Invictus isn’t really about rugby. As the words of Nelson Mandela above suggest, this movie wasn’t really about rugby at all.
“Our enemy is no longer the Afrikaner. They are our fellow South Africans, our partners in democracy. And they treasure Springbok rugby. If we take that away, we lose them. We prove that we are what they feared we would be. We have to be better than that. We have to surprise them with compassion, with restraint and generosity. I know all of the things they denied us. But, this is not the time to celebrate petty revenge. This is the time to build our nation, using every single brick available to us, even if that brick comes wrapped in green and gold.”
The movie was about nation building at its best. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in a very small prison cell as a political prisoner during the apartheid government of South Africa. When international pressure and economic sanctions eventually helped to force some changes in the African government, Mandela was finally released. He ran for President and became the reorganized nation’s first democratically-elected leader. For many, the first order of business might have been payback. How can you spend so much of your life imprisoned for your ideas and not want revenge on the very people who put you there once the power was reversed? Instead, Mandela set his sights to nation building. Nation building comes in many forms. At a rugby match, the new leader found his inspiration. He noticed that the national team was beloved by the former Afrikaners and hated by the black majority of the country. Hated so much that a young poor black child would rather be cold than wear a jacket emblazoned with the team logo. With his new inspiration firmly in his own mind, he needed to find a way to let that idea spread. With the World Cup merely a year away, he challenged the team to win it, giving the nation something they could get behind. It may sound like a crazy idea. But the really crazy part is that it appeared to have worked.
No one tells a story better than Clint Eastwood. As powerful an actor as he might have been for 50 years or more, he has really found a niche as a director. He only takes on projects he feels a passion for. He doesn’t waste time with a lot of negativity on his staff. Most of his team has been there with him since 1970. He also has an uncanny ability to select the right actors for the roles. In this case, the casting of his long-time friend and collaborator Morgan Freeman was brilliant.
“You elected me to be your leader. Let me lead you now.”
To begin with, Freeman happens to share some striking resemblance to Mandela. So much so that it appears it was Mandela’s request that Morgan Freeman portray him in the film. He made a personal appeal to Freeman himself. Freeman, like many men before him, found it very difficult to say no to Nelson Mandela. The makeup crew did an outstanding job of accenting those similarities and transforming Freeman into Mandela convincingly. But Mandela is an international celebrity. We’ve seen him on news broadcasts for decades now. It’s hard to bring to life such a familiar figure and blend into the man enough to allow the audience to come along for the ride, seeing the character and not the actor. We recognize people by more than just their physical appearance. The person’s speech and inflections, combined with how they walk or their facial expressions, all become part of the recognition process the more we are exposed to a particular individual. Give Freeman an extraordinary amount of credit for how well he carried himself. Every little nuance is captured here. It’s the mark of not only a skilled actor, but an observant and intelligent thespian. That’s what really makes the movie. Forget about the rugby or the supporting cast, or even Eastwood’s skilled direction. This movie rises or falls on the shoulders of a very adept performer.
Eastwood makes the natural choice to film on location in South Africa. While some of the actual locations had to be compromised, there are many such locations that are the exact places where the original events occurred. Two of particular note are the visit to Robben Island and Mandela’s actual cell, and the actual government building where Eastwood became the first director to be allowed to film at the location. It helped that the film and its participants had the blessing of Mandela throughout production. Who is going to deny one of their national heroes and a living legend whatever in the heck he wants? The locations are only another layer of the authenticity that exudes from this film.
I guess we should talk about the rugby. Matt Damon does something quite counter to his reputation in two ways. Firstly, he is playing a supporting role here. Damon is not in as much of the picture as you might suspect. And most of his footage involves rugby action, so he has very few lines. Secondly, I never thought of Damon in such a sports role. He actually is quite believable and even carries off the accent most of the time here. The few major non-rugby scenes he does figure in are quite prominent, but almost always overshadowed by the presence of Mandela … I mean Freeman. There’s not a ton of rugby footage until the last 33 minutes. From here on out most of the movie covers the final game between South Africa and New Zealand.
Give Eastwood credit for not hitting us over the head with the morality issues here. We are all familiar with them, and there have already been plenty of films that have covered those issues. They are certainly a part of the film’s landscape, and the movie does not ignore them. We’re given a very brief setup that fills in the blanks in the unlikely event someone in the audience doesn’t know who Nelson Mandela is or what happened. Instead the script, based on the book Playing The Enemy by John Carlin, accentuates the positive. We are treated to the philosophy of forgiveness and moving forward that makes this movie so much easier to enjoy. I just have a hard time feeling entertained when someone is working very hard to make me feel guilty about something. Mandela’s philosophy could teach this country a thing or two about how to move on. Unfortunately, there is a political faction in this country that is always looking for someone to blame, someone to punish, someone to pay. It’s a refreshing take, indeed.
Invictus is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with a VC-1 codec at an average 25 mbps. The high definition image is quite solid. There are some wonderful aerial panoramic views of the area which accent the decision to shoot the film in South Africa. Colors are natural, if a little soft at times. The real detail in the image comes when Eastwood brings his cameras in close on Freeman. You can see startling detail of Freeman’s face that only remind us all the more how closely he resemblance the genuine article. The rugby matches show the most prominent color. Here the action is quick so that detail might not be at its sharpest. There is a night-in-the-rain match which shows off excellent contrast and black levels. Here textures shine, as you can see the grain of the mud and rain-soaked uniforms. The print is in excellent condition, and there appear to be no compression issues.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 does offer some expansive range, but only on rare occasions. This is a dialog piece, for the most part, so that most of the sound will be front and center. The Kyle Eastwood score often shines through with some of the film’s more dynamic moments. The rugby match sounds natural enough. Of course, this is from a guy who has never actually seen one. I have watched a lot of sports in 5.1 before, and this matches that experience adequately. You can hear all of the dialog just fine, not that there is much to compete with the words.
Vision, Courage and Honor: This is a picture-in-picture option that allows you to watch as Clint Eastwood gives you a backstage tour as you view the film.
Mandela Meets Morgan: (28:10) HD The cast and crew begin by praising Nelson Mandela. There is a meeting covered between Freeman and Mandela, but this is really a small part of what becomes a general making of feature. There is also a meeting between Matt Damon and the player he portrays on the film, who also served, along with Chester Williams from the actual team, as consultants on the movie. There’s plenty on the cast and the South African locations.
Matt Damon Plays Rugby: (6:49) HD As you might expect, this piece covers much of the filming of the rugby scenes.
The Eastwood Factor: (22:23) SD This is a short segment from a longer biography of Clint Eastwood that was released with that mega-film collection earlier this year.
DVD and Digital Copy
I’m going to admit that I’ve never in my life watched a rugby game. I don’t know the rules, and quite frankly it looks like a disorganized version of football. I was worried that my enjoyment of the film would suffer from my indifference to the sport. Fortunately, it never made me feel like I was missing out. I kind of got the hang of the scoring before too long. It appears kicks through the goalposts are worth 3 points, just like a field goal in real football. I don’t know what an actual goal scores as, but there appears to be an extra point kick that follows. Finally, it is odd that the game clock counts upward instead of winding down. That’s really inconvenient if you don’t know how long a regulation period is supposed to last. I think overtime is 10 minutes. But what’s with those funny uniforms that look like jockey silks? Hey, “It’s a legitimate question”.