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Oscar? Early, Faint Praise for Clint’s ‘Invictus’

Clint Eastwood’s Nelson Mandela film draws admiration, but no passion, from first critics

A couple of days after the embargo on reviewing “The Lovely Bones” seemed to slip a bit revealing some mixed opinions, a few writers are pulling back the curtain on Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” as well. And so far what we’re seeing is respectful, but seldom rapturous.

Newsweek’s David Ansen set the tone with a “preview” of the film, which deals with Nelson Mandela and the Rugby World Cup of 1995. In the last paragraph his three-graf preview morphed into a review of sorts. “Anthony Peckham’s sturdy, functional screenplay … can be a bit on the nose (and the message songs Eastwood adds are overkill). Yet the lapses fade in the face of such a soul-stirring story….”

Not long after Ansen’s review appeared, the Hollywood trade papers jumped into the fray with full-fledged reviews. In Variety, Todd McCarthy’s review is mostly positive, though it never feels like a full-fledged rave; after calling it “a very good story very well told,” he spends as much time recapping the plot as critiquing the film.

The Hollywood Reporter, on the other hand, damns the film with faint praise: “A temperate, evenhanded, perhaps overly timid film about an intemperate time in South Africa.” The thrust of Kirk Honeycutt’s comments is that Eastwood is restrained, respectful and conventional where it could (should?) have been more fiery and emotional.

On the Huffington Post, producer Pamela Ezell, who saw the film at a DGA screening, took a similar tack: “’Invictus’ isn’t a great movie but it’s got great moments … On a scale of one to 10, one being ‘don’t see’ and 10 being ‘go see, even if you have to hire a sitter,’ I’d say ‘Invictus’ is a six: add it to your Netflix queue or watch it on pay-per-view.”

At Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeff Wells finds two things to love about the movie: Morgan Freeman’s performance as Nelson Mandela, which he predicts will win Freeman the best-actor Oscar, and "the fact that Eastwood is Eastwood and there’s something I love about sinking into his films."  Overall, though, he thinks it’s "second-tier Eastwood."  

So far, the reviews don’t make “Invictus” sound like the best-picture frontrunner many assume it is – though we hardly have a fair sample at this point, and Eastwood certainly has a great many admirers in the Academy.

I won’t see it until early next week, so I can’t throw my own opinion into the mix quite yet. I know that when the film screened for exhibitors – who tend to look at movies for their commercial prospects rather than their artistry – the reaction was largely positive, tempered with worries that its second half could be problematic as Eastwood turns away from Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela and focuses on the rugby player portrayed by Matt Damon. (“It turns into a sports movie about a sport Americans don’t know,” one exhibitor said.)

Meanwhile, shortly after David Ansen helped to lift the gag order surrounding “Invictus,” another David, Thomson, did something similar with another embargoed movie, “Nine.” Thompson began a lengthy essay in the Guardian with musings about the movie and its co-writer, his late friend Anthony Mingella. By the end of the piece, he was writing a full-fledged review: “I found ‘Nine’ a very moving film. I’m not sure if the public will take it to their hearts.”

In other words: another big movie, another measured response. Does this count as the embargo-breaking review that will open the floodgates for more? We’ll see.