MOVIE WITH A MESSAGE
> EASTWOOD’S OVERLONG ‘INVICTUS’ USES SPORT AS RALLY POINT FOR SOUTH AFRICA
Director Clint Eastwood’s new movie, “Invictus,” is as formal and deliberate as its lead character, South African President Nelson Mandela, as portrayed with trademark self-conscious dignity by Memphis-born Morgan Freeman.
This, shall we say, stiffness may be intentional on Eastwood’s part. Except when the action is on the rugby field, the movie emulates the rhythms of a wise old man, who moves with care to ensure success, however urgent his task. (Freeman is 72, Eastwood is 79, and Mandela was 75 when he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president, after the dismantling of the apartheid system of institutionalized racism.)
With a soundtrack usually devoid of music except for stirring national anthems (plus an awful original message song, unsubtly titled “Colorblind”), “Invictus” risks dullness and embraces preachiness to pursue an idea that is given lip service by politicians but is rarely addressed in motion pictures: “How do we inspire ourselves to greatness?”
This is the question Mandela asks Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the captain of the national rugby team, when the president decides that the 1995 Rugby World Cup championship series, hosted by South Africa, could be used to unite the racially torn country. “Reconciliation starts here,” says Mandela, urging black South Africans to embrace the almost all-white rugby team, the Springboks, once a symbol of apartheid oppression. “Forgiveness liberates the soul,” counsels Mandela, a political prisoner for 27 years in South Africa’s infamous Robben Island prison.
On one level, “Invictus” is a sports movie, as Eastwood (who doesn’t appear in the movie) and screenwriter Anthony Peckham (working from John Carlin’s nonfiction book, “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation”) follow the underdog Springboks in their unlikely quest to capture the World Cup; the last 20 minutes of the (overlong) film are devoted to South Africa’s championship match against the ironically named New Zealand All Blacks.
Watching “Invictus,” however, it’s hard not to think of our own first black president, Barack Obama, also facing hostile opposition that seems more invested in his failure than in the country’s success. Eastwood was a John McCain supporter, but “Invictus” arrives as a sort of invitation for healing, a recognition of the difficulty in “balancing black aspirations with white fears,” as Mandela says in the film. This makes “Invictus,” despite its setting, another exploration of the themes of American identity — the tension between violence and civilization, between chaos and promise, between fear and tolerance — found in such past Eastwood-directed movies as “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and “Flags of Our Fathers.”
As a drama (almost too strong a word, in the context of “Invictus”), the movie is somewhat inert due to its lack of character development. Mandela and Pienaar are more or less static figures — men of decency, from start to finish. The “character” that evolves over the course of the story is South Africa, making the film an attractive fantasy of idealism for those who long for international justice and tolerance, and a suitably prestigious (pretentious?) vehicle for a man who’s already won two Best Director Oscars. (Contrast this message with that of the sci-fi actioner “District 9,” which suggests that South Africa remains a place of racist conspiracy.)
Longtime Eastwood fans will recognize Mandela and Pienaar as the latest example of the lonely old mentor-impressionable young student pairing also at the heart of “Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino.” Mandela doesn’t actually train Pienaar, the way the Eastwood character works with his apprentices in those earlier films, but he functions as an inspiration, a role model. “This is no time to celebrate petty revenge,” Mandela says in the film, reminding us that the post-Dirty Harry Clint Eastwood is the rare American filmmaker who favors sacrifice over destruction.
The title — Latin for “unconquered” — is a reference to the 1875 poem “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, which Mandela quotes throughout the film: “I am the master of my fate ... I am the captain of my soul.”
Matt Damon portrays South African rugby team captain Francois Pienaar in Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus,” also starring Morgan Freeman as South African President Nelson Mandela.