In Clint Eastwood's 'Invictus,' Morgan Freeman as Mandela is a unifying force
WITH APOLOGIES to William Ernest Henley, one might say that under the bludgeonings of Clint, "Invictus" emerges a little boring, but unbowed.
Eastwood's earnest new movie is a conventional, sometimes flat recreation of South African president Nelson Mandela's bid to jump-start the new South Africa in 1994 by rallying all citizens, black and white, around the country's rugby team.
It gains power, though, thanks to Morgan Freeman's gratifyingly subtle work as Mandela (he waited a lifetime for the role, but does no showboating), its shrewd use of sports-movie topes, and its unfashionable embrace of political reconciliation.
Mandela mystified his newly enfranchised black supporters when he intervened to protect the roster and the colors of the country's nearly all-white Springbok rugby team, an outfit whose jerseys had come to symbolize the apartheid forces that had ruled the country (and imprisoned Mandela for 27 years).
Mandela, though, recognized almost immediately that to heal and grow his new nation, he needed to be president of all racial and ethnic factions, and this meant reassuring the white minority.
The script by Anthony Peckham dramatized this idea in complementary ways. There is the story of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, whose accent is OK but whose Teutonic blond locks look weird), a forward-thinking Afrikaner who accepts Mandela's charge to make the rugby team relatable to black citizens, and above all to make it a winner.
Running parallel are Mandela's pointed efforts to integrate his personal security force, employing as bodyguards some of the same white secret police officers who did some apartheid dirty work.
Both subplots speak to how culture is linked to sports - to how tribal and clannish sports can be, but also how improbably unifying as a social force. Mandela's black guards are soccer fans, his white guards rugby men, a dynamic that reflects the culture of the country as a whole.
Mandela, capitalizing on his country's status as host to the Rugby World Cup, seeks to make Springbok a rallying point for the entire nation - providing a salve for bruised white pride, furnishing an tangible example of potential greatness to all South Africans.
One problem: the rugby team stinks. Damon's job in "Invictus" is to be the sports-movie jock leader, and he's fine. Freeman's job is to be quietly inspiring. Mandela's modesty is the trait that most consistently surprises and inspires those around him, and Freeman actually softens his sonorous voice and stoops a little to embody Mandela's humility.
Eastwood eschews the aggrandizing cinematography of Great Man cinema, and that's smart - this isn't a sprawling, ambitious bio. It's at times little more than a docudrama, and there are moments when the movie feels cheapened by its no-frills approach. Freeman, for instance, is saddled with pages of expository dialogue, forced to explain the composition of World Cup brackets, and lay out the Springbok path to the finals.
"So," he says, gathering all of his famous Freeman gravity, "It's important we beat Australia?"
On the other hand, who better than Freeman to recite Henley's entire poem over Eastwood's montage of the prison where Mandela spent so many years of his life?
We can thank whatever gods there may be for Freeman's unconquerable talent.