Clint Eastwood’s Invictus sounds like a drama of paint-by-numbers nobility, the kind that can make you dread awards season. It stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela — that’s like a monument playing a monument — and though the film is set during the stormy period just after Mandela was elected South Africa’s president in 1994 (he was 75), it’s not a complex portrait of a society in transition. It’s a sports drama that hinges on Mandela’s attempt to rouse and unify the nation by turning its nearly all-white rugby team — the Springboks — into the 1995 World Cup champions. Since that strategy centered on Mandela’s alliance with the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar, Invictus is yet another movie that refracts black struggle through the eyes of a white hero — in this case, Matt Damon looking so blond that he’s practically Aryan. Ladies and gentlemen, line up those Oscars!
But before we overdose on cynicism, let me say that Invictus, while it does have moments of stodgy uplift, is more fascinating — and intelligent, and moving — than it sounds. It’s really about the inner workings of politics, and about how Mandela made a hugely counterintuitive decision: to embrace the Springboks even though they were despised by the nation’s black majority. He knew that supporting the ”enemy” would ? symbolize a laying down of old hatreds, thus paving the way for a new nation.
It’s thrilling to watch Freeman do his perfect imitation of Mandela’s lordly, formal cadences. That’s because Freeman captures the mind behind the manners: Mandela the crafty persuader who orchestrated his fan worship of the Springboks as an act of high-wire rebellion. Invictus often suggests a spiritual link between Mandela’s cunning and the strategies of Barack Obama, with a rough parallel between the film’s righteously angry black South Africans and the progressives whom Obama won’t appease. The film’s speechifying is at times overexplicit, yet Freeman lets the words breathe, and Damon, as the cautious Afrikaner brought to a higher place by Mandela’s authority, acts with a ? coolly impassive fervor. And how is Invictus as a sports movie? Let’s just say that its lump-in-the-throat climax is predictable, but that doesn’t mean it’s less than earned. B+