Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Morgan Freeman has so much talent that he makes acting look easy. In director Clint Eastwood's latest movie "Invictus,"(***1/2 out of ****) based on John Carlin's non-fiction book "Playing the Enemy," Freeman impersonates controversial South African President Nelson Mandela. Interestingly, Mandela said that Freeman was the only actor who he felt could do him justice on the big-screen. Basically, this inspirational sports saga about rugby concerns more than just capturing the 1995 World Cup. "Sherlock Holmes" scenarist Anthony Peckham and Eastwood have produced a solemn, straightforward, but contemplative film about how Mandela shrewdly appropriated a hated symbol of apartheid and wielded it so that he could unite a racially torn nation. In other words, the savvy politician pulled the ultimate public relations ploy and used a rugby team. This factual social activist melodrama with its liberal perspective seems rather predictable at times, but it is remains nevertheless as reassuring as it is absorbing. Essentially, two minds meet in "Invictus" and forge a change that solidified a country. The performances by Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as a conscientious rugby coach are flawless. Damon appears physically fit for such a demanding role and his accent sounds reasonable. Some scenes seem almost too good to be true, particularly the camaraderie between a young black teen and two gruff-looking South African beat cops during the World Cup game. Unlike most sports films, "Invictus" dwells more on how the game of rugby engineered racial harmony in a repressive society than about the game itself.

After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman of "Unforgiven") emerges and wins the presidency of South Africa. Mandela's victory ushered in many striking changes, and his fellow blacks wanted to disband the South African team, the Springboks, because it reminded them of racial oppression. No sooner does Mandela hear about this rash decision than he races out to appeal to his constituents about the error of their ways. Of course, they hate the Springboks, but Mandela urges them to support him and his request to leave the Springboks alone. Mandela convinces them that this represents a splendid opportunity to allay white fears about black power. Initially, Mandela's closest adviser warns him about this kind of activism. Meanwhile, the Springboks are doing themselves no favors with their abysmal performance on the playing fields. A Mandela adviser observes that winning the World Cup would create a lot of ppsitive publicity for the new government and Mandela summons blond Afrikaner, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon of "The Bourne Ultimatum") who bears no political crosses, and encourage him to win the World Cup. The messiah-like Mandela exerts considerable influence on Pienaar and the coach takes his pampered team on promotional tours into the most squalid of black ghettos to teach the children the basics of the game. Early in "Invictus," one of Mandela's white bodyguards describes to his black cohorts the essentials of rugby: "Soccer is a gentleman's game played by hooligans, rugby is a hooligan's game played by gentlemen."

When Peckham and Eastwood aren't concentrating on Mandela's cagey political maneuvers, they depict the changes that occurred all over South Africa with a subplot about the president's integrated team of bodyguards. Mandela's chief of security had requested more bodyguards, so the president obliges him with British-trained, Afrikaner cops. Indeed, Mandela discourages any whites from leaving government service because he needs them as examples of unity within his administration. Time gradually erodes white anxieties about black aspirations as reflected by grudging cooperation between the black and white bodyguards. Again, rugby takes center stage with the whites explaining the rules of rugby to their colleagues.

Nelson Mandela comes off looking as slippery as James Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Mandela doesn't miss a trick in his political calculations and he impresses his closest adviser. Indeed, Mandela emerges in "Invictus" as an Abraham Lincoln of sorts. He survived 24 years of brutal, back-breaking imprisonment on an island and slept on a mat for a bed. This same individual, who endured enormous hardship, later ascended from the lowest position in society—a prison inmate—and attained the highest post—president of the same country that had incarnated him. Mandela realized from his pinnacle of power that the only way to thwart an immanent civil war that threatened to tear South Africa apart that he had to exercise accommodation toward his fellow whites.

Wisely, director Clint Eastwood doesn't have much truck with politics in "Invictus." Peckham and he provide the basic ground work about the sudden changes that rocked South Africa with Mandela's election as president. They present us with the struggles that the Springbox with their green and gold outfits endure. Mandela demonstrates true insight into his fellow men when he decides to let a predominantly white rugby team become a rallying cry for intolerance and unity. No, "Invictus" is not the kind of movie that you would expect from Clint Eastwood and—like his protagonist who prefers to make risks—Eastwood has helmed and honed another classic. "Invictus" ranks as a sentimental sports saga that never gets sappy. Incidentally, "Invictus" translated means as invincible.

No comments: