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Ten Word or Less Review: Not bad, not great, a tad better than so so.

“Invictus” is the latest sure handed effort from sturdy, prolific maestro Clint Eastwood.  It demonstrates his sturdy and sure handed directorial style to a T with its sturdy and sure handed pacing.  It has a sturdy and sure handed temperament and an overall feel which could be called sturdy and sure handed.  Yes, my praise is slightly mocking, but sturdily so.  Clint Eastwood can craft wrenching drama out of superior screenplays, and he can also guide remedial exercises in genre to the screen with great frequency.  “Invictus” has aspirations of being the former, but is mostly the later.  It’s a tale not told with trite contrivances or over blown melodrama as in most sports based films, but it lacks punch and feels bloodless in too many places.

Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela is his early years as South Africa’s newly appointed president.  Glancing over larger political issues of his day, “Invictus” follows his attempt to turn South Africa’s second rate Rugby team, the Springboks, into a point of national unity.  The newly minted majority of black South African’s despised the team and saw them as an extension of the apartheid system which kept them in poverty and destitution for decades.  They wanted the team disbanded and to have a new team created in its place which would represent the new South Africa.  Mandela realized that the white minority of South Africa still adored the team, as well as held a great deal of political and economic power.  Dismantling the team would lead to increased fears on their part that Mandela and his new government wanted to wipe their existence from the country.  He approaches the team’s captain, played by Matt Damon, and subtly suggests that the team needs to win the Rugby World Cup.  Mandela wants the team to stay so it can transform itself into a beacon on unity for all of South Africa, not just its white minority.

Eastwood presents all of this in sturdy and sure handed fashion.  I’ll stop saying that now.  His inclination for low key sequences and unobtrusive observations doesn’t work to his advantage much with “Invictus.”  Too much of the first hour feels pedantic and downright dull.  He doesn’t construct much personal drama for any of his characters, instead letting the overall situation carry his film.  After slowly working through these perfunctory paces, “Invictus” begins to find a heartbeat, albeit only a minor one.  It has some rousing moments to be sure, but the film fails to connect consistently on a emotional level.  The lack of a compelling arc for any of his characters is a vital missing link.

Morgan Freeman turns in a worthy performance as Mandela.  In a film such as this it would be easy to whitewash his character and fall into blind hero worship.  “Invictus” doesn’t go so far as to do this, but nor does it strongly examine Mandela with a critical eye.  Eastwood and Freeman go so far as to acknowledge the imperfections of the man, but they never much deal with what those imperfections really are.  All the same, Freeman gives Mandela a touching and good willed nature that’s difficult to not warm to on some level.  Fairing less well is Matt Damon as the Springboks team captain, Francois Pienaar.  His character isn’t superfluous, but he has no real dramatic payoff or journey to take.  Damon’s part amounts to the occasion inspirational speech and scenes of playing rugby.  One can assume his decision to take the role was based purely on the Eastwood factor.  He is in no way turning in a poor performance; he’s simply stuck with a character that is dramatically marginal with no real place to take him.

“Invictus” has a noble purpose and a good spirit so tearing it down and picking it apart seems like a cruel and unnecessary venture.  It is in no way ground breaking, it’s barely interesting at numerous turns, but it achieves some small level of uplift and never panders or insults the audience with cheap dramatics.  Eastwood is too smart for such games.  But on the other hand he seems too flat footed a director to make this material fly above ground level.  There’s a bigger, more complicated movie to be found here, but this isn’t it.  It’s a slightly better than average sports drama and not much else.  For a story about the unifying event of an entire country, it feels like there should be more, but there’s not.

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