“Invictus” is a very good story very well told. Shortly after Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison and became president of South Africa in 1994, he seized upon using a rugby World Cup the following year as an opportunity to rally the entire nation — blacks and whites — behind the far-fetched prospect of the home team winning it all. Inspirational on the face of it, Clint Eastwood’s film has a predictable trajectory, but every scene brims with surprising details that accumulate into a rich fabric of history, cultural impressions and emotion. The names of Eastwood and stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon should propel this absorbing Warner Bros. release to solid returns Stateside, with even better prospects looming in many foreign markets, where an unfamiliar sport and South African politics may pose less of a potential B.O. hurdle.
Once again in his extraordinary late-career run, Eastwood surprises with his choice of subject matter, here joining a project Freeman had long hoped to realize. In fact, the filmmaker has frequently dealt with racial issues in a conspicuously even-handed manner, most notably in “Bird,” and his calm, equitable, fair-minded directorial temperament dovetails beautifully with that of Mandela, much of whose daily job as depicted here consisted of modifying and confounding the more extreme views of many of his countrymen on both side of the racial divide.
Mandela is the lynchpin of “Invictus,” whose title is Latin for “unconquerable” and comes from a stirring 1875 poem by British writer William Ernest Henley. Although far from a conventional biography, Anthony Peckham’s adaptation of John Carlin’s densely packed book “Playing the Enemy” commences with Mandela’s extraordinary transition from imprisonment to the leadership of a country that easily could have fallen into a devastating civil war.
As he takes office, Mandela allows that his greatest challenge will be successfully relaxing the tension between black aspirations and white fears. Pic adroitly avoids becoming mired in the minutiae of political score-settling by summing up racial suspicions through the prism of the new president’s security detail. Mandela’s longtime black bodyguards are shocked when their “Comrade President” forces them to work with some intimidating Afrikaners, experienced toughs who until very recently were no doubt striking terror into the hearts of the black population.
Directed by Eastwood with straightforward confidence, the film is marbled with innumerable instances of Mandela disarming his presumed opponents while giving pause to those among his natural constituency who might be looking for some payback rather than intelligent restraint. Freeman, a beautiful fit for the part even if he doesn’t go all the way with the accent, takes a little while to shake off the man’s saintlike image, and admittedly, the role of such a hallowed contemporary figure does not invite too much complexity, inner exploration or actorly elaboration. That said, Freeman is a constant delight; gradually, one comes to grasp Mandela’s political calculations, certitudes and risks, the troubled personal life he keeps mostly out of sight, and his extraordinary talent for bringing people around to his point of view.
Where the rugby match is concerned, that talent is manifested by how, over tea, Mandela personally appeals to the captain of the South African team, the Springboks. A blond Afrikaner with no discernible politics, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) would just like to lift the squad from its present mediocrity. But Mandela quotes inspiringly from the poem — “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul” — speaks of leading by example and exceeding expectations, and leaves Pienaar astonished at the idea that they can dare to dream about winning the World Cup.
Just as it’s disinclined to offer a primer on South African politics, the film refrains from outlining the rules of rugby; the viewer just has to jump in and surmise that it’s something like a cross between soccer and American football. What the film conveys with tart economy is that rugby was a white game, scorned by blacks; as one man puts it, “Soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.”
In a magnificent irony, the team the mostly white South African squad ultimately faces in the title match is a mostly white New Zealand team called (because of their uniforms) the All Blacks. The climactic faceoff, played in front of 62,000 fans at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium roused by the presence of Mandela himself, lasts 18 minutes of screen time; when such an event plays out like this in real life, it’s often exclaimed that it could only have been scripted for the movies. Here, it’s real life dictating the incredible scenario.
With the exception of the meeting with Mandela and a couple of family scenes, most of Damon’s screen time is spent in training or on the field, and it’s meant as highest praise to say that, if he weren’t a recognizable film star, you’d never think he were anything other than a South African rugby player. Beefed up a bit (or, perhaps more accurately, slimmed down somewhat from “The Informant!”) and employing, at least to an outsider’s ear, an impeccable accent, Damon blends in beautifully with his fellow players.
Some of the most amusing and telling scenes throughout involve the bodyguards, whose body language, facial expressions and intonations of minimal lines convey much about the uncertain state of things in the country.
Shot entirely on location in South Africa, “Invictus” looks so natural and realistic that it will strike no one as a film dependent upon CGI and visual effects. In fact, the climactic match would not have been possible without them, as virtually the entire crowd was digitally added after the action was filmed in an empty stadium. You really can’t tell.
Tech contributions are solid down the line and local tunes fill out the discreetly supportive soundtrack.