Clint Eastwood's Invictus, from an Anthony Peckham screenplay of John Carlin's Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, does what the director's films do as a matter of routine: it reinforces a relatively discrete set of authorial concerns - sufficient in their proximity to the director's biography to earn the contested tag of personal - while uniquely embodying the zeitgeist of its making. Invictus, in this last respect, provides a seismic reading of America in at least its early 2009 production phase, that is of a nation - with a dubious racial past - fresh off its election of its first African-American president. Eastwood's film, however, while conscious of the singularity of this achievement in both nations, does not stop at the meretriciousness of Mandela's election, but rather showcases his wisdom in ruling the entire African nation of 41 million, both black and white alike. The director and screenwriter's Mandela preaches forgiveness and reconciliation, even when most of his own racial and political faction would seem to prefer justice in the form of revenge (always a subject for late Eastwood). Ultimately, the implied connection between Mandela and Barack Obama stops at their election, with the life of the former becoming for the latter proscriptive rather than a descriptive comparison. Invictus is thus, however loosely, the cinematic equivalent of the President's Nobel Prize.
That Eastwood emphasizes Mandela's (played very ably by Morgan Freeman) outreach to the defeated white minority, in his defense and advocacy of the Sprinboks rugby club (captained by Matt Damon's Francois Pienaar), a lingering symbol of apartheid-era South Africa, illustrates the former's extraordinary political aptitude, while underscoring the picture's present-day implications. That is, Invictus projects a hope in unity rather than in racial and especially factional division (which is very much in keeping with the campaign-trail Obama of the film's 2008 pre-production phase). In this way, Invictus conveys the optimism of the defeated, not a surprising tact for the libertarian-leaning former Republican mayor and John McCain supporter, even more than it does the joys of the (formerly oppressed) victors. Eastwood shows this clearly in the sudden excitement of South African sandlot soccer players upon the news of Mandela's release and in the literal periphery of the Pienaar family maid for most of the film; importantly, Eastwood stages the former scene contradistinctively, with camera movements and the director's signature cross-cutting (a strategy that obtains throughout this sports movie) serving to compare the soccer players' celebrations with the rugby teams' ruminations on the "terrorist's" release. Mandela's actions win over both the Sprinboks and their mostly white fan base, lending to the film's generally hagiographic tone.
Nevertheless, Eastwood and Peckham do suggest the leader's troubled personal life, and especially his estrangement from his daughter, which beyond providing some balance to their treatment of the former president, places Invictus within the thematic current of the director's more recent corpus, following on the similarly themed True Crime (1999) and Million Dollar Baby (2004). Likewise, Eastwood's concluding underlining of Mandela's age and declining health rhymes with the director's previous Gran Torino (2008), with which it also shares its racial emphasis. Still, as accomplished as Freeman's performance is in Invictus, Eastwood's latest suffers in comparison to Gran Torino by virtue of Eastwood's scene-chewing absence in front of the camera, which enlivened the 2008 release. Analogies of quality aside, Invictus proves to be the biopic, Eastwood-less Bird (1988) follow-up to Gran Torino's supremely entertaining Heartbreak Ridge (1986).
Invictus likewise shares Gran Torino's overly-exaggerated symbolic and thematic exposition, the 2008 picture's greatest deficiency, which in the former film most egregiously manifests itself in Eastwood's concluding Christ-pose. In Invictus, the picture's use of cloyingly obvious pop songs and an extended, heavily cliched penultimate slow-motion passage (made necessary in part because of his decision to cut between the action on the rugby pitch and the reactions off) rate as unmistakable lows. In other words, Eastwood's conventionality, one of the great late classicist's biggest strengths, becomes a weakness. Nonetheless, the strengths of Invictus certainly outweigh its flaws, from Eastwood's perpetually skilled direction of actors and his classical storytelling (save for the aforementioned, unnecessary accents) to again, its clear expression of 2008-2009 American public thought. (In this latter respect, Invictus succeeds in besting the less historically precise Gran Torino.) With Invictus, Eastwood has made yet another cogent entry into his most American of contemporary canons, in spite of its non-American subject, providing a film that is neither among the best nor the worst of his pictures - not unlike a late, artistically minor if thematically significant John Ford such as The Last Hurrah (1958); Eastwood's official stature makes him the modern day equivalent to the master, as does his robust sense of his country of birth - but one that is nonetheless fully his.