Although in years past Eastwood’s directorial efforts came in pairs (with Flags of Our Fathers paired with Letters from Iwo Jima and Changeling released in the same year as Gran Tornio, 2009 saw the release of a single film from Eastwood and it predictably netted a pair of Oscar nominations (although it didn’t win for either). The film was a departure for Eastwood in some respects, but at the same time the focus on a historical event and what it meant in the overall big picture is what Eastwood has often gone for in his historical expeditions in the past. While it will unlikely be one of his most revered or talked about works, Invictus is nevertheless another example of not only Eastwood’s directorial talent but also his knack for picking out leading stars that elevate the film to new heights.
What does Nelson Mandela do after becoming president of South Africa? He rejects revenge, forgives oppressors who jailed him 27 years for his fight against apartheid and finds hope of national unity in an unlikely place: the rugby field. Clint Eastwood (named 2009’s Best Director by the National Board of Review) directs an uplifting film about a team and a people inspired to greatness. Morgan Freeman (NBR’s Best Actor Award winner and Oscar nominee for this role) is Mandela, who asks the national rugby team captain (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Matt Damon) and his squad to do the impossible and win the World Cup. Prepare to be moved – and thrilled.
Sitting down you immediately realize that this film is really about more than either Freeman or Damon’s characters and as commanding a presence as they are on the screen, they really are only half the story. I was taken aback a bit by just how generic the formula was for the film; it played out like your typical political film but it also had elements of the usual “struggling team overcomes something to win in the end” story that accompanies just about every sports movie ever made. The individual elements of the film were not what made it unique; rather it was how they were stitched together to form something that wasn’t quite so ordinary. Truth be told a lot of Eastwood’s films aren’t overly complex, they’re just presented in a way that makes them feel that way at times, although that is probably mostly due to his track record of hiring absolutely amazing actors to be cast as the leads in his films.
What was such a draw for this film was that while it used the aforementioned staples of other genre-like films, the outcome wasn’t Mandela to be a more liked president or for the rugby team to win countless victories. It was really all about unifying the country to root for a single entity and to bring some sense of cohesion and comradery to the nation. While the nation is still far from rampant smiles that adorn the frames by the end of the film, the key thing to take away from this film was that Mandela’s plan worked beautifully, even if it was only for a short time. The film wasn’t quite as inspiring or tear-provoking as other triumph-like films, but it was nonetheless a remarkable tale.
The thing that helped make it be truly remarkable were, of course, the performances. Freeman and Damon were really the only two actors in the film you’ve even heard of, which isn’t a problem as Eastwood tends to not use major actors in supporting roles. Though the film does focus strangely on the security team more than I would have expected (although their situation is one that really mirrors the whole country, so it was a nice parallel), all of the actors that made up Mandela’s staff or François Pienaar’s (Damon) family were all equally remarkable and wonderful to watch. But it truly was the leads performances, Freeman especially, that made this film so worth watching; there’s not really any kind of way to describe Freeman’s performance other than that he really is Mandela. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he is actual friends (or at least acquaintances) with Mandela in real life, so he’s already offered some kind of insight into Mandela’s mind. Plus there is Damon’s performance which is a lot more understated than anything; he rarely gets riled up and in the few scenes that he does, they’re made all the more memorable (the locker room beer scene in particular stands out).
Overall Invictus is a film about a country, about its president, and about its rugby team. Rarely do those things ever correlate with one another to make any kind of apparent cohesive story, but Eastwood saw where the story was in South Africa’s history and went for it. While the film is, again, less about Mandela or Pienaar, they nonetheless are key components of the story and there truly isn’t an element of the story that could be cleaved out without the film feeling incomplete. It is a Recommended film and one that you really shouldn’t miss.
Invictus is brought to home video in a set that arrives in a standard Elite Blu-ray case, though strangely no slipcover (at least not with my copy). Inside the two-disc case is the Blu-ray disc itself along with a copy that contains both a DVD and Digital Copy of the film as well. Extras are sadly quite limited, but overall it’s a tidy package.
Video is a VC-1 encoded transfer and although this film is not exactly something you’d bust out demoing your home theater it is still remarkably beautiful nonetheless. The film has a bit of a dark tinge to it; nothing that actually brings night time to day time images mind you, but it always seems to have a bit of a cloud-in-front-of-the-sun cast to it; the creates for some interesting visuals and paired with Eastwood’s directing it really just makes for a real visual delight. Close-ups are fantastic as well and boast plenty of detail to gaze upon.
Audio is a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track may seem a bit much for what amounts to a rather laid back film, but there really is a lot of surround activity on the track. Whether it’s office or locker room environments or on-field and stadium antics, the whole sound field sound spectacular. Voices are bellowed through the center channels with great force and clarity and the LFE is always there, subtly reminding you of the score or that some kind of physical contact was made during a game of rugby. It’s a satisfying mix regardless of its overwhelming quietness at times.
Extras are, as previously mentioned, pretty light in the number but the content they contain is quite remarkable. Vision, Courage and Honor: Clint Eastwood and the Power of a True Story is a feature-length picture-in-picture commentary that goes over the film; there’s really no words to describe how thorough and fantastic this was to watch. It’s not really a complete sit-down with those involved with the film so much as it’s a series of interview clips with Eastwood and company (including the real men whom the film is based on and the actors who played them). I had a lot of fun watching this track as it gave a bit more of the history behind the story than the film itself did; plus we got an eye into its production as well.
Next is a two-part Behind the Story set that includes “Matt Damon Plays Rugby” and “Mandela Meets Morgan.” The “Rugby” piece is pretty short and is just what it sounds like, but the “Meets” segment is more of a making-of style documentary as it focuses on all of the key elements (actors, sets, shooting, etc.). Finally we have The Eastwood Factor which is an overview of Eastwood’s career as both actor and director; a bit of an odd addition to throw in, but a welcome one nonetheless. There is also an extended Invictus Music Trailer as well and aside from the “Factor” piece they’re all in high definition.
Overall a Recommended release for Eastwood fans as that “Vision, Courage and Honor” piece is well worth the price by itself.
Invictus arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on May 18th.