The goal rush
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
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