There's a specific subgenre of film that I like to call "oh, that's nice" cinema. Yes, the "oh" is mandatory. I don't make the rules*. An "oh, that's nice" film is a slick package, well-produced by every technical standard, probably quite well-acted, often mildly inspirational, almost always a biopic, incredibly safe and by-the-numbers, never earns any visceral emotional reaction of any kind, and is released at awards season and lauded by critics far beyond what the film itself actually warrants. The list of last decade's Best Picture nominees is absolutely fucking flooded with these movies — Ray, Capote, The Queen, Finding Neverland, Seabiscuit, Erin Brockovich — and they occasionally even win (see A Beautiful Mind, 2001). Despite their critical fellatio, these films fall out of cultural memory very quickly (I would kill to see the confusion on the face of any critic who called A Beautiful Mind a masterpiece eight years ago asked today to describe a single scene from the film), and indeed, beads of sweat are already peppering my forehead as I strain to recall the details of Clint Eastwood's Invictus, the new pinnacle of "oh, that's nice."
It's 1994 (after a brief prologue in 1990). Newly-inaugurated President Nelson Mandela seeks to mend the bitter rift between black and white South Africans through the uniting power of sports and encourages South African team captain Francois Pienaar to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup to help heal the country. Inspirational sports movie time? Hell yeah it's inspirational sports movie time. We got the team starting down and out on a losing streak, we got training, we got swelling speeches, we got last-minute comebacks, we got slow motion, we got the audience shooting to their seats at a key moment as the sound fades out. There's a racial component to the story, but all played incredibly safely and with nary a moment of genuine tension to be found lest the blue-haired septuagenarians in the audience experience a moment of discomfort. Needless to say, the film ends with all racism being eradicated from the world, so you can smile and go home and ignore the millions of subsentient gun-toting rednecks in 2010 demanding that the President of the United States of America be led off in chains (always in chains in their fantasies) for the crime of being black.
What the film does right can pretty much be summed up in two words: Morgan Freeman. I'd never make any claims of being a Mandela scholar, but as far as I can tell he was pretty much the real thing just slightly more photogenic and with twice the gravitas. Man can act his ass off, and for once he's no one's mentor this time around. Matt Damon gets the job done and is instantly forgotten as Francois Pienaar (personally, I preferred Leo DiCaprio's South African accent in Blood Diamond) and I don't remember anyone else except for Damon's comically racist dad who becomes a better man in one of the film's most "oh, that's nice"-inducing subplots. The sports sequences are all laughably by the numbers. Basically, Invictus is Disney's The Mighty Ducks with rugby instead of hockey and Nelson Mandela occasionally coming in and saying something inspiring. Nonetheless, it will be nominated for Best Picture, because, you know, the Academy.
Eastwood's next movie is apparently a supernatural thriller called Hereafter starring Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard, and I'm glad. I fucking loved last year's Gran Torino, and comparing that with the dryness of Invictus I'd just as soon see Eastwood stick exclusively with trash for the rest of his career because that's clearly where his true talents lie.
2 Stars out of 5
* I make the rules.