In An Upended Nation, An Unlikely Play For Unity

W: Morgan Freeman in 'Invictus'

hide captionMadiba Unconquered: Winning the South African presidency was one thing for Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman). Bringing the racially divided country together was a bigger battle — and one in which Mandela deployed some unexpected troops.

Keith Bernstein

Invictus

  • Director: Clint Eastwood
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 132 minutes

Rated PG-13, brief strong language

With: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon

The same Hollywood that gave us Johnny Cash as a tormented country-music star, Erin Brockovich as a ferocious legal investigator and Coco Chanel as an inspirational fashion designer now gives us Nelson Mandela as ... a sports fan? Who'da thunk?

And frankly, who'd have green-lighted such a project, if Invictus didn't have Morgan Freeman playing Mandela and Clint Eastwood urging him on behind the camera? Which is not to say Invictus is in any way graceless — only that it occasionally seems simultaneously on point and off-center, focusing on a literal playing field rather than on the political creation of an even playing field.

Still, its first reel, about Mandela's ascension to the presidency of a freshly post-apartheid South Africa after 27 years in prison, will almost certainly choke audiences up, as much for reasons of history as of filmmaking. It would be hard not to be moved by aerial shots of long lines snaking toward township polling booths — 1994 news footage, this is — as black South Africans voted not just for the first time in national elections, but also for one of their own. That election altered their nation's social fabric, and though the film doesn't lean on the parallels, it has obvious echoes for audiences in an Obama-led America.

I'll confess to welling up a bit in that opening reel as Freeman's Mandela gathered white F.W. de Klerk-era government employees, who'd been clearing out their desks and fearing reprisals after years of white-supremacist policies, to tell them that he hoped they'd stay on with his new administration. The reconciliation pep talk he delivers is engaging, his cadences warm, his logic impeccable. And if the warmth flows back his way a little too easily from a roomful of smiling white faces, well, cut Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham some slack: They have just a couple of hours to bridge a racial divide that goes back generations.

Mandela, of course, had a bit longer than that, and he used a lot of different tactics to defuse tensions in a nation that might easily have slid into social and political instability. The ploy Invictus fixes on, with John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy as its inspiration, is a particularly unorthodox (and apparently a particularly effective) one involving South Africa's nearly all-white national rugby team, the Springboks.

The team — their name, their symbol, even the green and gold of their uniforms — was the very embodiment of apartheid and the hated old regime, cheered by whites, and cheered against by blacks, who'd traditionally root for whoever was on the other side of the pitch. Mandela attends a game, spies a potential teaching moment, and invites the Springboks' Afrikaner captain to tea, suggesting that it's in the interest of the country to broaden the team's populist appeal before South Africa hosts the Rugby World Cup in 1995.

Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman in 'Invictus' i i

hide captionMandela works with Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), captain of the national rugby team, to unite a nation in support of its underdog team.

Keith Bernstein
Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman in 'Invictus'

Mandela works with Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), captain of the national rugby team, to unite a nation in support of its underdog team.

Keith Bernstein

Intriguing setup. Next comes the scrum, which proves significantly less engaging — much rugby, a bit of hero worship, and a settling into sports-movie conventions that seem awfully tidy, considering that Invictus (Latin for "unconquered") centers on the most unruly sport imaginable. By hewing to both the hagiographic rules of movie biographies and the inspirational rules of sports dramas, the film ends up making even the job of nation-changing seem remarkably tame.

Freeman's Mandela, however, is pretty marvelous — so persuasive in gesture, in bearing, in that signature mix of gravitas and twinkle, even in accent — that when a shot of the real Mandela appears over the final credits, it's momentarily jarring to realize you've been watching an impersonation.

As with most Hollywood films about major black figures, a white star — Matt Damon, freshly bulked up as Springboks captain Francois Pienaar — is also on hand to offer a bit of box-office insurance. He and his teammates appear to be enjoying themselves on the rugby pitch, particularly in a sequence that has them, at Mandela's insistence, doing some outreach in the townships with rugby camps for kids. (If, among the faces behind Damon in those scenes, you spy one that looks vaguely familiar, there's a reason: He's Eastwood's son Scott.)

As with all Eastwood-directed films, Invictus uses finely wrought domestic details (a framed photo establishing family relationships, an age-signifying stiffness of gait, a glance that telegraphs acquiescence after a momentary struggle) to create a portrait not just of a central personality, but of the community around him. But a heavier hand also gets applied at times — with a trip to visit Mandela's old jail cell on Robben Island, in a score that punches emotional moments a bit too hard — and the film loses steam in a last half-hour that's largely given over to the climax of a rugby championship game played out in real time. Given the nature of the game, the sequence is confusing, and the outcome a foregone conclusion.

Still, as an acting vehicle for Freeman, and as a frankly inspirational tale from Eastwood about the late-in-life achievements of a celebrated figure who would have been plenty impressive had he simply rested on his laurels, Invictus has obvious virtues. It feels heartfelt — a generous elder's film about a generous elder's bequest to the world.

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