With Invictus, Morgan Freeman teams up again with director Clint Eastwood and fulfills his longtime desire to portray Nelson Mandela, South African president and international hero. The decision to reunite was a smart one for both men, who had worked together successfully in Unforgiven. Still, Eastwood's direction is flabby at times here, and the film might have benefited from another pass through the editing bay.
The story is based on John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, and it was adapted for the screen by Anthony Peckham. The game in question is rugby, and the events surround Mandela's enthusiastic support of the South African team's attempt to win the 1995 World Cup.
Although he's a fan of the sport, Mandela's actions were born of an ulterior motive: that of building a post-Apartheid nation. Understanding the emotional symbolism of sports culture, Mandela seized the opportunity to create what we call these days a "teachable moment." With racial tensions high after his release from prison and ascension to the presidency, Mandela saw a means of bridging the fears between his newly powerful black constituency and the fearful white old guard.
Rugby had been traditionally scorned by the black population of South Africa as an Afrikaners' game. The country's national team, the Springboks, was captained by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), who was in his own way struggling to figure out a way to successfully lead his teammates. Mandela first appeals to Pienaar, who learns from the master how to lead by example and surpass expectations. He also learns from Mandela the inspirational poem "Invictus," with the oft-quoted line: "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."
On a more intimate scale, this learning experience about reconciliation and abandoning old grudges is played out in scenes among Mandela's bodyguards. His longtime guards were clan members who had always been with him. He had to force them to suddenly work alongside white Afrikaners - enforcers who, only a few years ago, might have beaten and harassed the black population.
We all know where the story is headed, so the culminating match (nearly 20 minutes) takes up too much screen time without adding anything new to the drama. Freeman, although brilliantly capturing Mandela's speaking cadences, posture and gait, never nails the accent (unlike Damon, to my ears). Furthermore, whenever I looked at the character's face, I saw Freeman instead of Mandela, thus breaking the film illusion.
But Invictus is inspiring and educational, especially during the present time in America, when we are supposedly muddling our way into a post-racial society.
Invictus Eastgate, Point, Star, Sundance