It’s clear that “Invictus” aims at being more than just the average inspirational sports movie. I can’t imagine director Clint Eastwood (“Gran Torino”), who never makes the same film twice, at age 79, being satisfied with such lightweight fare. But his new movie is so concerned with rugby as a game, not as a metaphor, it’s hard to get beyond the “underdogs persevere and win the big game against all odds” vibe.
Morgan Freeman (“The Dark Knight”) is Nelson Mandela, who, after spending nearly 30 years in prison as a political dissident, becomes president of South Africa. He knows that the only path to the continued existence of his country and to its international acceptance does not follow the way of revenge against the minority of whites who had ruled the country.
He has seen how devoted the Afrikaners are to the Springboks, the national rugby team, despite the fact that they couldn’t beat the rugby equivalent of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Blacks want to fire the team’s management and players, change the team’s name, and spread salt on the practice field. Well, maybe not that last part, but you get the idea.
Mandela disagrees, believing that such actions would reinforce white fears that blacks will destroy everything about the country that Afrikaners hold dear. He goes to team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, “The Informant!”) and tells him that what he wants, and what South Africa needs, is for the Springboks to win the World Cup.
Mandela likes rugby, and even played it when he was much younger, but basically, this is a political calculation, knowing that success in sport will draw the entire nation together. And you know it’s true.
The acting is first-rate, as you’d expect from an Eastwood picture, but most of the characters are underwritten by scripter Anthony Peckham (“Don’t Say a Word”). Mandela is always noble, always understanding, always sure of his course of action. That may be the way the man really is “ for which his nation should be grateful “ but it doesn’t make for a particularly compelling character in a drama.
Damon has much the same problem as Pienaar. The script paints him one day as a standard non-racist guy who shows little interest in politics, and the next as a convert to Mandela’s ideas.
The most promising element of the story comes with Mandela’s security team. The new president insists that white officers from the previous regime join with his black officers in finding a way to work together. Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge, “Blood Diamond”) and Etienne Feyder (Julian Lewis Jones, “The Bank Job”) move from active dislike to at least tolerant acceptance, and perhaps more than that before film’s end.
Everyone learns from the poem “Invictus” “ Latin for “invincible” “ that we must draw on our own inner reserves of strength and courage in order to change ourselves. What we don’t learn much about, except from inference, is rugby, which looks like no rules football but without the pads.
Come to think of it, maybe it’s a metaphor for life after all. —Doug Bentin