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The common perception of Clint Eastwood is that of a tough, uncompromising figure in Hollywood, the kind of rugged seen-it-all type who can smite souls with his eyes and talks through gritted teeth, grousing about the foibles of a harsh, unforgiving and morally vacuous world. As an actor he is both revered and stereotyped as a stoic alpha male with a foundation in True Grit; as a director he is justly celebrated as a teller of powerful stories about flawed people in bad circumstances.

But every once in a while uncompromising artists such as Eastwood gaze into the mirror and soul search: do they really wanna be remembered as the perennial party pooper?

So at 79 years of age (and still churning out films) the great, flinty, hard-nosed man has finally descended into soapy sentimentality with Invictus – a Nelson Mandela biopic, of sorts, that glossily dramatises the achievements of the South African rugby team in the time shortly after Mandela rose to power.

Invictus is cheesy both as a political story about Mandela’s Presidency and as a sports movie about the Rugby team that could. Eastwood’s brand of cinematic cheese, it should be noted, may taste like a subtle smoked cheddar when compared to the rank blue-vein flogged by many of his Hollywood colleagues – but it’s here nonetheless.

Invictus is historical fiction that exists in a nicer, cleaner version of reality than we (and Eastwood’s films) typically inhabit. Eastwood doesn’t know how to make this kind of picture so he gropes around the edges, blinded by the light of a world in which his signature pessimism has little relevance.

Invictus, in other words, is a galaxy away from Eastwood’s sports movie magnum opus, the heart pulverising and devastatingly brilliant Million Dollar Baby, which proffers the sort of emotional journey that leaves even hardened critics physically shaken by its power and complexity.

Early moments in Invictus breezily establish black South Africans getting the vote, Mandela coming to power and the tension associated with the country’s new political leader. Before you know it Mandela is in a stadium amongst a crowd of football appreciators watching the nation’s team get shellacked. Observing the crowd’s reactions, we can see his brain ticking over: football can be used for political expediency. He wants them to win the World Cup but the team sucks and the big day is less than a year away. Mandela calls captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to his office and the plot kicks into gear.

There are scenes in which Mandela’s security is worriedly discussed by his distressed aides, and there are allusions to his safety throughout. But there is never any tension, never any edge. The film has a stroll in the park pace.

The point is voiced and reiterated by doubtful supporting characters that rugby is small chips, not a great concern in the spectrum of issues confronting South Africa. Or is Mandela right and it represents something greater than beer and jock straps? The mantra of other sports movies – not reality – provides our answer.

There are faux inspirational soap box moments during which Mandela / Pienaar address sceptical people, convincing them that victory is possible, football is important, sport can heal the nation’s wounds if you believe etcetera. A scene in which Pienaar visits Mandela’s old cell and, with the aid of  misty hallucinations, imagines him and his old cell mates there, feels like it belongs in a different picture. The uncertainty with which Eastwood frames this moment is to a large extent indicative of his style throughout.

We don’t come to know the team characters except Pienaar past a rudimentary sense, so the sports scenes don’t feel propped up by personal dramatics. The slab of on field action in the second half feels disjointed from the narrative, and that’s a crucial impediment of any sports movie (hybrid or nay). Oddly, we don’t come to know any of the political characters except Mandela well either, so the politics plot doesn’t carry much oomph. We know from the start that’s it’s going to end more or less with: we told you so.

Freeman is convincing as Mandela but it’s a minor performance, certain unworthly of the towering heights mounted in his incarnation of God in the Bruce Almighty movies. Oddly, he speaks louder than normal, as if he’s concerned others won’t hear him or background noise will drown him out. This seemed to get better as the film goes along; perhaps Mandela’s meds take a while to kick in. Maybe the great man actually talked like this but it’s cloying. Damon isn’t given much to work with but he authentically plays a meathead; read into that however you will. The smaller performances are less convincing: the dopey sports commentator/provocateur and the huffy head of Mandela’s security are soul-less, chalk outline characters.

The cheesy soundtrack selections don’t help: “it’s not just a game you can’t throw me away / I put all I had on the line / I give and you take and I played the high stakes.” Yeah yeah yeah.

When Invictus doesn’t feel like a political drama with a sports movie tacked onto it, it feels like the opposite, and the pot-holed synergy between politics and sport mar the film throughout.

It’s amusing to imagine Eastwood’s crotchety Walt Kowalski from Gran Torino sitting down to catch a screening of Invictus, after grumbling about the cost of a seniors ticket and the size of the choc top. It’s hard to believe Kowalski would have anything but disdain for the film’s anthem of hopefulness and good-spirited parochialism (if he managed to stay seated without leaving for a toilet break and never returning). And, you know, he’d have a point.

Invictus’s Australian theatrical release date: January 21, 2010.

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