By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Uplifting, high-minded and inspirational, director Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” is just what’s needed in our movie houses at this juncture.
Hopefully, this morally instructive saga about how South Africa’s Nelson Mandela used rugby to instill pride in his nation won’t only be preaching to the choir. It would be nice if a few ne’er-do-wells see it, too.
But then, one can’t very well shanghai the ethically bankrupt and make them absorb this tale of selfless folk working for the commonweal. There’s just too many of them. We can only hope that some of our burgeoning reprobates, perhaps intending to see “Ninja Baby Killers Revisited,” find grace after mistakenly landing in a theater showing “Invictus.”
But surely, whether you take it in to reaffirm beliefs long held dear or just because it’s a rousing good story, Mr. Eastwood and company won’t let you down. Morgan Freeman is splendid as President Nelson Mandela, and Matt Damon is also quite superb as Francois Pienaar, the national rugby team’s captain. Plus, it’s a fine sports saga to boot.
If anything, its shortcomings—a lack of surprise and experimental nuance—are doubtlessly due to the director’s custodial reverence for the material. Like the long distance runner cleaving to the flame, he is delivering the entrusted message, the dramatic gospel. And in doing so, he handsomely employs a rather traditional style of storytelling.
All the same, personalities are not lost among the majesty of grand principles extolled. Freeman creates an unmistakable aura. A longtime associate of Mr. Eastwood’s, he obviously shares his director’s monumental mission, generously managing to make the great man mystical but human, and yet not so saintly so as to be incredible.
It is empowering to be in his company for two plus hours…nice to be entertainingly reminded that every once in a while the good guy prevails…that sometimes the ideals learned in our youth can be realized. In the same breath, and thus adding to the film’s enchantment, we are made privy to one of history’s most savvy and astute politicians.
There is whimsy in his forthrightness when Madiba, as Mandela came to be known by supporters old and new, asks the rugby star for his help in soothing the naysayers. The thought is that a national sharing in athletic victory will heal rifts. The conversations, pungent with philosophy and, of course, sports metaphors, provide food for thought.
While Matt Damon is not always easy to understand as a result, his total appropriation of an Afrikaner accent nearly challenges Meryl Streep’s amazing Danish argot in “Out of Africa” (1985). He also bulked up a bit. But while Francois Pienaar is a tough customer, he’s gentleman enough to know that destiny has joined him on the field of play.
We are brought into these historical circumstances in 1994, shortly after Mr. Mandela, who had previously spent twenty-seven years in prison, is elected President of South Africa. Among his first diplomatic moves to seek reconciliation and not revenge, he seizes on the enmity that black citizens hold for Springboks, the national rugby team.
It just so happens that South Africa will be hosting The World Cup in 1995. With the planet certain to be looking in at the generally despised, formerly apartheid country, the stage is set for tactician Mandela’s grand public relations plan. His strategy? Get blacks behind the team and then win the cup. Never mind that Springboks is hardly even rated.
Summoning what one could consider the combined talents of Disraeli, Bear Bryant and Red Auerbach, by inviting Piennar to the Presidential Mansion Mandela tacitly elects himself über coach of Springboks. The two take tea. Later, when asked about his famed luncheon, Matt Damon’s dazed rugby captain says, “I think he wants us to win the cup.”
Herewith, the sociopolitical ruminations intertwine with the sports story …and not a bad one at that. Even the great unwashed, including this suddenly indoctrinated fan, become Springboks supporters. Naturally, we don’t know any of the rules. Yet we Yanks sort of get the idea while never ceasing to be amazed that these guys wear no protective padding.
Good special effects reproduce Johannesburg’s overflowing Ellis Park Stadium, replete with a bubbling excitement to match the rough and tumble action on the field. Balancing the momentousness, dramatic subsets tell the personal narratives. A running squabble between black and white members of Mandela’s security corps is humorously illustrative.
Yep, ‘tis a pity those who would benefit most from this gracious civics lesson will be too busy texting while driving or otherwise denying their membership in the human race. Still, it’s good to know we can count on Mr. Eastwood who, via “Invictus” (Latin for unconquered), informs that mankind’s love of justice and tolerance shall not be defeated.
“Invictus,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Clint Eastwood and stars Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon and Tony Kgoroge. Running time: 134 minutes
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