Americans do not understand rugby. They have heard of it, they might have seen it on TV, but expecting an American movie audience to grasp the concepts of the game over the course of a film is expecting a lot. What Clint Eastwood does is avoid complex explanations entirely, setting the bare bones of the game during a training session with some kids, and showing that a kick can be worth three points.
Besides, little of Invictus is about rugby. The focus, at least for an hour, is on the rise of Nelson Mandela, played brilliantly by Morgan Freeman. Out of prison, Mandela found the game of rugby to be a uniting factor amongst the South African people following Apartheid. Amongst his other stresses, including international relations, finances, and building the very foundation of a stable government, the South African rugby team held it together.
Many of the sports movie clichés are avoided for about half of the runtime of Invictus. In fact, sports are more of a background event. Eastwood’s focus is purely on developing Mandela as a gentle individual, focusing on his personally requested pay cut, selfless acts, and the care of his people. A subplot involving Mandela’s security is not needed.
That makes the increase of rugby slightly jarring. What was once a bit piece of the film becomes increasingly prevalent, too late to build characters aside from Francois Pienaar (Damon) on that South African squad. The concept, or seemingly so, is that as rugby becomes more prominent in Mandela’s politics, scenes of the sport increase in the movie.
Eventually, this all succumbs to the sports movie cliché, that slow motion, last second point scored by the underdog to secure the championship. That is of course how the events unfolded in real life, but ingenuity can work around those clichés. Mandela becomes a bit player, his story completed long before the game even began. His triumph, his leadership has brought them to this point, and with limited knowledge of the sport itself, tension is limited.
Gone are those dramatic scenes of Matt Damon’s character investigating the actual cell Mandela was sentenced to for 24-years of his life. They are replaced with typical, even generic scenes involving the game, even Eastwood’s magical touch behind the camera unable to save them. Viewer involvement is limited, Mandela portrayed as the imposing presence he should be, now cleared from the frame to put a rugby team of undeveloped characters on screen. That hurts, and those finale moments are not the celebration they should be.
Warner’s VC-1 encode for Invictus gets off to a rough start. Extensive aliasing and shimmering litter almost every frame of the film for about an hour. The number of examples are too many to list, but the worst offenders are easy to pick out. The shantytown at 6:57 is riddled with aliasing as the camera makes a small movement, and the plastic roof flaps in the wind. Extensive flickering is evident on tightly designed patterns of suits and ties, especially bad around 17:00. A sportscaster delivering commentary at 24:54 is riddled with aliasing on the metal of the table. At 28:43, a brief shot of the judges suffers from heavy ringing along with aliasing.
These type of shots occur throughout, just less frequently as the movie moves away from the fine lines and onto the rugby field. The problem certainly remains. Seconds past the hour mark, the rugby team’s bus shows significant aliasing on the side. At 1:29:37, glasses on both characters show some blocking. Some more edge enhancement is visible in a brief shot at 2:00:31, this brief edit also seemingly processed significantly for some reason.
Aside from broken lines, shimmering, and edge enhancement, the transfer is exquisitely rendered. The muted color palette works surprisingly well, delivering naturalistic images. Grain is left intact and is rarely noisy (25:45 suffers from chroma noise for the entirety of the scene). Detail is phenomenal, even in mid-range shots. Facial textures are easily distinguishable even at some distance. In close, they are undoubtedly reference. Clothing textures are likewise defined and delineated flawlessly. Pan shots of the various cities are generally stunners, including some beautiful photography at 1:07:55. Wide shots of the stadiums are fantastically rendered, so much so the digital nature of the computer-generated fans becomes noticeable.
Black levels, while they do suffer from momentary dropouts, are generally superb. Depth and dimensionality, when combined with the level of high fidelity detail, is rarely lost. Contrast runs hot for much of the film, blooming light sources a regular problem, although certainly intentional.
No one will question the power of this DTS-HD audio mix once the stadiums begin rocking. The sheer force of thousands of fans screaming in unison is simply superlative, creating an immensely immersive environment. It is overpowering, as it should be, representing 60,000+ fans cheering on their team. The effect is perfect. A game played in a heavy rain is likewise spectacular. The storm overhead drops an incredible amount of water onto the field, again captured in all channels, yet not overpowering the splashing of footsteps as the players smash each other into the ground.
Dialogue, by comparison, can be mixed low. Some thick accents certainly do not help matters either. In tense situations, such as Damon giving a speech to his players before a big play, everything fits together. The quiet scenes are what suffer slightly, a bit of out of balance with those hefty events.
Bass fanatics have a few moments to take note of. A passenger jet flies over the stadium before the final match, delivering an amazingly deep, well extended rumble on the low end that rattles the stadium. Final moments of the game itself are in slow motion, aided by powerful jolts from the subwoofer. The music, including some fantastic African themes, carry flawless clarity and fidelity, along with a well-rendered low-end accompaniment.
Extras are limited, although well produced. A picture-in-picture track is superb, titled Vision, Courage, and Honor. This makes each segment easily accessible by pressing left or right on the remote. Behind the Story is split into two sections, the longest being Freeman’s meeting with Mandela himself, running almost a half hour. The other shorter feature focuses on Damon learning rugby. The Eastwood Factor is a section of a longer documentary to be released soon on Eastwood’s career with Warner, making it an extended trailer at 22-minutes. Trailers and typical Warner BD-Live support are left.