No one can argue that Clint Eastwood is the most prolific director working today. If you know anything about what goes into directing a motion picture, Eastwood’s output is all the more amazing given his age (79). Morgan Freeman seems to have become to Eastwood what Diane Keaton became to Woody Allen or what Leonardo DiCaprio has become to Martin Scorsese. It was no surprise then that Freeman approached Eastwood to direct his dream project about Nelson Mandela. Invictus is at times brilliant and frustrating and although I liked it overall, I feel that Eastwood may not have been the best person to have helmed this picture.

Invictus is the inspirational story of Nelson Mandela’s (played by Morgan Freeman) early years of his presidency of South Africa and his struggles to unify the blacks and whites of the country. Mandela recognized the popularity of rugby and he wisely decided to use its influence over the masses as a way to unify them as South Africans. He enlists the help of the captain of the rugby team (played by Matt Damon), whose record at the beginning of our story was a laughing stock. Mandela believed that if the team managed to advance to the World Cup, it would serve as a huge moral and inspiration boost for the nation. He convinces the captain to push the team toward the World Cup, despite the unlikelihood of success.

For a story full of potential emotion and inspiration, Invictus is surprisingly emotionless. Sure, there are moments that put a smile on your face and make you want to cheer for the characters, but such moments seldom occur. You can see Eastwood trying to infuse his scenes with feel-good moments, but these felt forced and overly melodramatic. Eastwood shows his hand in too obvious a manner and I could see him trying to push our emotional buttons. A good example is a scene where Mandela is heading off in his helicopter to visit the South African rugby team to personally wish them good luck in the World Cup. The scene is meant to be uplifting because for the first time Mandela is meeting the players, who are mostly white and did not support his presidency. As the scene opens, the theater is filled with a cheesy Ryan Adams-esque song that completely ruins the entire scene. I looked around the theater to see if I would see or hear any snickers from the audience, but surprisingly I didn’t.

Another sequence that utterly failed under Eastwood’s direction was the climax of the movie, which is the World Cup match between South Africa and New Zealand. I should have been watching a heart-stopping match between David and Goliath where you don’t know the outcome until the very end. Instead, the scene is completely flat and not only did I feel like I didn’t know what the fuck was going on (my ignorance of rugby rules is partly to blame), but I didn’t care. Eastwood set the scene up to play almost as if you’re watching a regular match on TV.

Now don’t get me wrong. Overall I felt this was a good movie, albeit with serious flaws. Morgan Freeman wonderfully inhabits the person of Nelson Mandela and I won’t be surprised if he earns himself a nomination for his performance. My one issue with how his role was written was that he spent too much time proselytizing about unification, tolerance, etc. You don’t get a sense of who the man really was. Instead, Eastwood and Freeman portrayed Mandela as a mythic figure (like how our media portrayed Obama during the first 6 months of office) who is shouldering all of South Africa’s problems upon himself. As a result, you can’t empathize with Mandela nor do you appreciate the problems he had to deal with that plagued South Africa. I noticed similarities between President Obama’s first year in office and Nelson Mandela’s early days. I don’t know if Eastwood meant to create such a similarity between the two figures, but I couldn’t help but draw the comparison as I watched the film.

Matt Damon does a serviceable job playing the captain of the South African rugby team. I don’t blame Damon as much as I blame how his character was written. The character does not do much other than either look fierce and determined playing rugby or stare out into nothing in silence when he’s not playing. I’m not sure if the character was unsupportive of Mandela’s election to the presidency or if he was racist, but I felt that he wasn’t completely aboard with Mandela either. We are supposed to see a transformation of his character from someone uncommitted to Mandela’s cause to one who embraces the new South Africa. Eastwood attempts a transformation by showing us Damon visiting Mandela’s prison and playing rugby with poor black children. Again, these scenes feel forced and manipulated. Moreover, they felt emotionless when we should have instead felt inspired by the changes Damon’s character is supposed to undergo.

Where Invictus succeeds is where we see the interactions and reactions of the blacks and whites to Mandela’s ascension to the presidency and the changes it brought about in South Africa. Those of us who follow current events know that there was much tension between the two races. The whites were forced to live as equals with the blacks, who for the first time were enfranchised and given the same rights as the whites. We are introduced to this dynamic through the secret service agents who were assigned to protect Mandela. The agents were comprised of both blacks and whites and they at first do not get along. Through them, we see the distrust and hatred between the races. There are other characters and moments in the film that illustrate the conditions of the country. They are done well and you really get a feel for what the atmosphere was like in South Africa at that time.

I know I have focused on the bad points of this film much more than the good points and I hope this doesn’t prevent you from seeing Invictus. All in all, it is a wonderful, little-known story that mixes sport and politics. The filmmakers use the story of a rugby team’s path to the World Cup to tell a larger story of a nation and how one man prevailed against overwhelming odds to hold it together. The moments that work in this film play out beautifully and it is because of these moments and the overall message that I wished so much for it to be a better film.