The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Go See - By John Bei­fuss


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.”

Keith Bern­stein/Warner Bro

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.

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