Though the story is set in South Africa, Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is a hybrid of classic American forms, the triumphant sports movie and the high-minded political film. There is much to like in the film, and a fair amount one might dislike as well, but in the end one’s overall feelings are likely depend on one’s enthusiasm for these genres in general and for their peculiar marriage in this instance.
Invictus tells the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the first major international sporting event to take place in South Africa following the collapse of apartheid. Nelson Mandela’s presidency was still young, and he saw in the event an opportunity to fuse his nation across racial lines, to make the national team, the Springboks, not merely an icon for white South Africa but for the country as a whole. Without giving too much away, he--and they--succeeded.
Mandela is played by regular Eastwood collaborator Morgan Freeman, and the performance is sincere and moving, if not always entirely smooth. So much of Freeman’s appeal, dating all the way back to his Easy Reader days on “The Electric Company,” has been tied up in his mellifluous baritone, but here he must pitch it upward to match Mandela’s clipped, nasal cadences. There are moments when the accent slips a tad, or you can hear Freeman’s natural rumble beneath Mandela’s tinny timbre. (Oddly, in a few bits of voiceover, Freeman seems to drop the accent altogether.) Yet these stumbles notwithstanding, Freeman gets the big things right: Mandela’s awkward gait, serene disposition, and strange anti-charisma, the way he could offer Hallmark-level bromides about peace and reconciliation with such quiet conviction that his words were impossible to ignore.
The rest of the cast features mostly unfamiliar faces, many from Britain and South Africa, with the exception of Matt Damon, who appears as the Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, the gut he carried in The Informant! having somehow migrated upward to his neck and shoulders. It is not a demanding role, but the ever-more-actorly Damon brings it off with low-key charm and integrity.
Any viewers hoping for a film about rugby will be disappointed. Eastwood spends no time explaining the rules to the uninitiated and he stages the matches--in particular, the drawn-out, heavy on slo-mo World Cup final--with “Batman”-worthy sound design (Crunch! Pow!) but indifference to the niceties of the game. Like The Damned United earlier in the fall, this is a movie that uses sports as a prism, though in this case the stakes are not the fate of a coach but the fate of a nation.
Invictus--the title comes from a William Ernest Henley poem that helped sustain Mandela when he was in prison--is the epitome of Hollywood filmmaking in ways both good and bad: uplifting, overlong, ambitious in scope but simple in moral vision, well-crafted but inured to irony. (This is a film that displays no second thoughts about rooting for a quasi-racist, nearly all-white South African team to defeat an aggressively multiracial squad from liberal New Zealand.) In the end, though, it is the story that carries Invictus through, a tale improbable and inspiring about a man who rose to his moment in ways that still beggar imagination.