The goal rush

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In­vic­tus, sports and pol­i­tics, PG-13, Re­gal Sta­dium 14, 3.5 chiles

As an ac­tor, Clint East­wood, push­ing 80, may be a lit­tle past get­ting the girl th­ese days, but as a di­rec­tor he still knows how to charm the pants off an au­di­ence. He’s as good as any­one at telling a story, putting it hand­somely up on the screen, dis­cov­er­ing nu­ance in re­la­tion­ships, and turn­ing a small mo­ment into some­thing that grabs the at­ten­tion and lingers in the mem­ory. He’s the di­rec­to­rial equiv­a­lent of those un­likely men and women who se­duce sim­ply by the power of at­ten­tion and lis­ten­ing, without ever seem­ing to try.

It’s been a long road from Rowdy Yates, the Man With No Name, and Dirty Harry to the di­rec­tor whom his friend Mor­gan Free­man com­pares to Akira Kuro­sawa. The qual­ity of East­wood’s out­put over the past decade and a half earns that com­par­i­son at least a sober hear­ing. In that time he’s won four Os­cars (two each, for best di­rec­tor and best pic­ture, with Un­for­given, 1993, and Mil­lion Dol­lar Baby, 2005) and racked up an­other seven nom­i­na­tions (plus the Academy’s Irv­ing G. Thal­berg Award for his body of work). And Os­cars have been scat­tered gen­er­ously among the peo­ple who work with him.

One of those is Free­man, who joins forces with East­wood for the third time in In­vic­tus. It’s an ac­count of newly elected South African pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela’s strat­egy in 1994 to bring to­gether

I

a coun­try torn apart by post-apartheid hos­til­ity by fo­cus­ing at­ten­tion on the na­tional rugby team’s pur­suit of the World Cup. South Africa was slated to host the com­pe­ti­tion the fol­low­ing year.

Syd­ney Pol­lack said that 90 per­cent of a di­rec­tor’s work is cast­ing. Free­man is per­fect cast­ing for Man­dela. Free­man had been Man­dela’s choice to play him in a movie, and the ac­tor was given an un­usual amount of ac­cess to study his sub­ject. Free­man cap­tures Man­dela’s ca­dences and his bear­ing, and finds the dig­nity, the com­pas­sion, the wis­dom, and the en­thu­si­asm that bring the South African icon to life.

The orig­i­nal project col­lapsed, but the role was born again when East­wood picked up jour­nal­ist John Car­lin’s book Play­ing the En­emy: Nel­son Man­dela and the Game That Made a Na­tion. It’s a nar­row slice of that life that In­vic­tus shows us. The Nel­son Man­dela we see is fo­cused pri­mar­ily on one bold move: as a Jo­han­nes­burg news an­chor puts it, his job is “bal­anc­ing black as­pi­ra­tions with white fears,” and he un­der­takes to do that by unit­ing the races be­hind the Spring­boks in their World Cup bid.

This is a dif­fi­cult propo­si­tion for two rea­sons. First, the Spring­boks suck. Sec­ond, they’re a di­vi­sive sym­bol, a team with only one black player and a vir­tu­ally all-white fol­low­ing. Black South Africans cheer openly for the other side, for “any­one but the ’ Boks.” To the black pop­u­la­tion, the team rep­re­sents apartheid, and the newly en­fran­chised blacks want to scut­tle the name and the team and start from scratch. A white char­ity worker pass­ing out clothes to town­ship kids dis­cov­ers you can’t even give away a Spring­boks jer­sey. “His friends would beat him up if he wore it,” her black as­sis­tant ex­plains gen­tly when a boy walks away from the gift.

Man­dela knows that a house di­vided against it­self can­not stand. Heal­ing is not an op­tion— it’s the only way. He has a pow­er­ful job of per­sua­sion to do, sell­ing the no­tion of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to both sides. In an im­por­tant ges­ture that is both sym­bolic and prac­ti­cal, he in­te­grates his se­cu­rity force, or­der­ing his black body­guards to work with ex­pe­ri­enced Afrikaner vet­er­ans of the for­mer gov­ern­ment’s squad.

Man­dela in­vites Fran­cois Pien­aar (Matt Da­mon), the cap­tain of the Spring­boks, to tea at the pres­i­den­tial palace. Pien­aar is from a racist Afrikaner fam­ily, but he is cut from a dif­fer­ent bolt of cloth. The young ath­lete is awed by his meet­ing with the great man. Man­dela quotes to him from an in­spi­ra­tional poem that helped get him through his 27 years as a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner in a tiny cell on Robben Is­land, off the coast of Cape Town: “In­vic­tus,” by English­man William Ernest Hen­ley. I am the mas­ter of my fate: I am the cap­tain of my soul. Da­mon cap­tures the look and feel of a South African rugby player beau­ti­fully. It’s a low-key, pitch-per­fect per­for­mance from an ac­tor who doesn’t al­ways get the recog­ni­tion his ma­jor tal­ent de­serves. The role doesn’t go deep into his char­ac­ter, and Da­mon doesn’t try to push it; he plays what’s there, and sug­gests the rest.

The last 20 min­utes or so of the movie is rugby, and rugby is a sport not much played or watched and even less un­der­stood by most Amer­i­cans. East­wood films it dy­nam­i­cally, with plenty of vis­ceral ex­cite­ment; still, that’s a lot of rugby. But East­wood’s suc­cess in this film is not in the bone-jar­ring col­li­sions of brawny men in shorts and no pad­ding slam­ming to­gether at brutish speed. It’s in the small touches, the char­ac­ter mo­ments, the em­pa­thy and won­der and the sense of his­tory un­fold­ing on an in­ti­mate stage.

What hap­pens in South Africa’s pur­suit of the­World Cup is his­tory; as Casey Sten­gel used to say, you could look it up. If the story fol­lows the fa­mil­iar arc of sports movies, that is a mat­ter be­tween his­tory and its sense of style. What East­wood has done is to as­sem­ble a cast of Amer­i­can and South African ac­tors and al­low them to cre­ate some­thing mov­ing, ex­cit­ing, and im­prob­a­bly true.

’Boks to the fu­ture: Mor­gan Free­man

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