It may not seem obvious at first, but Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus,” a rousing true story of athletic triumph, is also that director’s latest exploration of revenge, the defining theme of his career. It is hard to think of an actor or a filmmaker who so cleanly embodies a single human impulse in the way that Mr. Eastwood — from “Pale Rider” to “Mystic River,” from Dirty Harry to “Gran Torino” — personifies the urge to get even.
He has also, of course, taken a critical view of the drive for vengeance, investigating its tragic roots and terrible consequences. A movie like “Unforgiven,” most famously, suggests that violent revenge is regrettable. But rarely, in the world of Mr. Eastwood’s films, is it avoidable.
“Invictus” is to some degree an exception, a movie about reconciliation and forgiveness — about the opposite of revenge — that gains moral authority precisely because the possibility of bloodshed casts its shadow everywhere. The film, based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy,” takes place in South Africa in the mid-1990s, just after Nelson Mandela’s election as the country’s first black president. Many of the whites in the film — most of them Afrikaner nationalists still attached to a system that kept their black compatriots poor, disenfranchised and oppressed — brace themselves for payback as Mandela assumes power. Quite a few of the president’s black supporters expect it, too, as their due after decades of brutality and humiliation under apartheid.
But Mandela, played with gravity, grace and a crucial spark of mischief by Morgan Freeman, knows that score-settling would be a disastrous course for a new and fragile democracy. Passing by a newsstand on the morning after his victory, he spots a headline in Afrikaans. He has shown that he can win an election, it says, but will he show that he can govern? His bodyguards bristle at a pre-emptive low blow from a hostile press, but Mandela shrugs. “It’s a fair question,” he says.
And a perennially urgent one in any democracy. Mr. Eastwood and the screenwriter, Anthony Peckham, are too absorbed in the details of the story at hand to suggest historical analogies, but “Invictus” has implications beyond its immediate time and place that are hard to miss. It’s an exciting sports movie, an inspiring tale of prejudice overcome and, above all, a fascinating study of political leadership.
But much of the ingenuity in Mr. Freeman’s performance lies in the way he conveys that idealism and the shrewd manipulation of symbols and emotions are not incompatible, but complementary. Taking power a few years after being released from 27 years of incarceration, Mandela is already a larger-than-life figure, an idol in South Africa and around the world. His celebrity is something of a burden, and also an asset he must learn to use; his moral prestige is a political weapon.
But he is preoccupied, to the dismay of loyalists in his movement, with finding some kind of concord — not friendship, necessarily, but at least a state of non-enmity — with the people who hate and fear him: the whites who see him as a terrorist, a usurper and a threat to their traditions and values. Mandela’s overtures to the Afrikaners — starting with his refusal to dismiss white members of the presidential staff and security detail — arise partly out of Gandhian principle, and partly out of political calculation. They are a powerful force in the army, the police and the South African economy.
Mandela’s aides — in particular Brenda Mazibuko (Adjoa Andoh) — are baffled when he takes up the cause of the South African rugby team, a symbol of stiff-necked Afrikaner pride despised by most blacks. The team’s Springbok mascot, named for a kind of gazelle, and its green-and-gold uniforms are nearly as loathsome as the apartheid flag, and when Mandela insists that the colors be retained, it seems almost like a betrayal of his life’s cause. South Africa, a pariah in the world of international sports for a long time (“the skunk of the world,” as Mandela puts it), is preparing to host the Rugby World Cup, and Mandela decides that if the nation is to find unity and self-respect the underachieving Springboks must win the championship.
And so an alliance develops between the president and François Pienaar, the Springbok captain, played with crisp, disciplined understatement (and utter mastery of a devilishly tricky accent) by Matt Damon. Pienaar’s struggle to keep control of his team, and also to persuade them to accept some perplexing new social realities, is a microcosm of Mandela’s larger project. And he quietly accepts Mandela, who shares with Pienaar the Victorian poem that gives the movie its title, as a mentor.
Beyond the politician, Mr. Freeman and Mr. Eastwood allow us glimpses of a complicated and somewhat melancholy man, carrying the loneliness of his long imprisonment with him and estranged from much of his family. He is gracious and charming in small groups, a stiff but compelling public speaker and a boss whose authority is buttressed by a phalanx of devoted, sometimes skeptical aides.
But if “Invictus” is predominantly an absorbing character study of one of the most extraordinary characters of our time, it is also fleshed out with well-sketched minor players and subplots that illuminate the progress of racial rapprochement in its comic human dimension. The black bodyguards and their white colleagues proceed from hostility to wary tolerance to guarded warmth in a way that is pointed without being overstated. And that, for the most part, characterizes Mr. Eastwood’s direction, which is always unassuming, unhurried and efficient. In this film he tells a big story through a series of small, well-observed moments, and tells it in his usual blunt, matter-of-fact way, letting the nuances take care of themselves.
And once again, as in “Letters From Iwo Jima” — a tragic rather than heroic inquiry into the nature of leadership — they do. “Invictus” is more sprawling than that film, and more willing to risk hokiness. That is a chance Mr. Eastwood is often happy to take, and no genre is more susceptible to it (or earns it more honestly) than the victorious-underdog team-sports movie. That the sport is as alien to most Americans as it is to black South Africans presents its challenges, but by the end you might care about rugby more than you thought you would, even if it remains harder to understand than politics.
The convergence of the two provides an occasion for some potent, intelligent filmmaking — a movie that hits you squarely with its visceral impact and stays in your mind for a long time after.
“Invictus” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some swearing, the threat of violence and brutal sports action.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Anthony Peckham, based on the book “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens; production designer, James J. Murakami; produced by Mr. Eastwood, Lori McCreary, Robert Lorenz and Mace Neufeld; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes. WITH: Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela), Matt Damon (François Pienaar) and Adjoa Andoh (Brenda Mazibuko).
By Ella Taylor
Aside from Morgan Freeman, who makes a fabulous Nelson Mandela, there's this to savor about Invictus, a rosy tale of racial reconciliation neatly wrapped in a triumphalist sports movie: The film is blessedly free of Obama parallels. Also, we could use a happy global moment, and Eastwood picks one out of the otherwise rocky history of South Africa, when the country's first post-apartheid president stepped out of the jail where he'd languished for 27 years and firmly set aside revenge politics in favor of national unity.
More than most, Mandela understood the cohesive power of the symbol—in this case, the bright green uniform of the South African rugby team the Springboks, echoing the flag equally beloved by whites and hated by blacks under apartheid. Adapted by South African writer Anthony Peckham from a book by former London Independent journalist John Carlin, Invictus tells the story of how Mandela, with help from the Afrikaner team captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, gym-pumped into Michelin Man and oozing fair play), turned a World Cup rugby match into a moment of rainbow solidarity.
Like every Eastwood production, Invictus is stately, handsomely mounted, attentive to detail right down to the Marmite adorning the team's breakfast buffet, and relentlessly conventional. As a portrait of a hero, the movie effortlessly brings a lump to the throat (Freeman gives a subtly crafted performance that blends Mandela's physical frailty with his easy charm and cerebral wit); as history, it is borderline daft and selective to the point of distortion. It's true that you can't shoehorn a nation's history into a single movie, but Peckham's dialogue, stuffed with strenuously underlined exposition, blazes an indecently fast trail from mutual suspicion to interracial love and understanding.
The powerful dislike between Mandela's black and white bodyguards melts into reverence for their leader and joint cheerleading for the team. Within minutes of their enforced arrival in the shantytowns, the Springboks (including Eastwood's cute son, Scott, who gets plenty of money shots) are happily hoisting adoring little black boys onto their shoulders. Pienaar's parents' maid gets tickets to the cup final, where she and the mistress sit side-by-side, rib-poking with every home-team score.
Never mind that many white supremacists fled abroad to seethe in safety over the end of white privilege. Never mind that the ANC, the very movement that had worked for years to free Mandela and bring down apartheid, is confined here to a lone reductive scene that dismisses a complex resistance group as a bunch of thuggish ideologues. And Winnie Mandela, who is no picnic but deserves a place in this story, is kicked out of the movie altogether, save for a couple of cheap gibes at her betrayal of her long-suffering husband. She and the extremist wing of the ANC have a right to more nuanced exposure in Invictus, if only to acknowledge the unpalatable truth that apartheid manufactured more monsters than it did dignified heroes with forgiveness in their hearts.
That Mandela is a great man is beyond dispute—but that's no excuse to position him in a Great Man theory of history. In the end, Invictus becomes what almost every Eastwood movie becomes: an inquiry into masculinity shaped in the director's own image, with the answers already supplied.
Eastwood can't play his own wounded hero this time, but his perennial ideal is all here in Mandela the courtly gentleman, Mandela the elderly yet still potent flirt, Mandela the dry wit—above all, in Mandela the rugged individualist who won't toe the PC line when duty suggests otherwise. Manning up in Eastwoodland has matured with age, from "Revenge is sweet" (the final scene in Unforgiven) to "The best revenge is living well." Maybe, but in real life, that's not enough. Mandela befriended his prison guards and refused to make enemies of South African whites, including his former tormentors. Yet for all his lovely manners, his donations to worthy causes, his insistence on pouring his own tea, or even his high-minded dedication to reconciling former enemies, South Africa today is a muddle of hope and despair.
For the record, I cried my way through the climactic game, with all its kitschy slow-mo lopes around the pitch, its roar of the crowd and peripheral melodrama. But I came out feeling had. How Invictus will play in the North American multiplex (foreign sport + foreign country = not promising) is a lot less interesting than its reception in Johannesburg and—perhaps more significantly—in the townships, where conditions remain abysmal and communities are decimated by a long-untended AIDS epidemic that makes our own crisis look like a tea party. Today's South Africa has been many decades in the making, and it is the product not of one good man but of movements full of courageous men and women who almost certainly rose to power before they were ready. But as they say in the pitch meetings, where's the glamour in that?
By Stephanie Zacharek
Even though it's based on real events, there are moments in Clint Eastwood's "Invictus" that seem as artificial as the thatch of bright dyed-blond hair on Matt Damon's head. Damon's character here is Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African national rugby team, the Springboks, which made a historic leap for its country when it won the World Cup in 1995. In our first glimpse of him, he's a bulked-up lug of a guy taking up real estate on his mother's living-room couch, accepting the super-nutritious power shake she's concocted for him. With his button nose and beefy build, he looks as if he's auditioning for the title of World's Oldest Teenager.
Francois will be instrumental in a plan hatched by then-recently elected President Nelson Mandela, played here by the aggressively noble Morgan Freeman. The country's black population -- the majority -- hates the nearly all-white Springboks, seeing them as a relic of apartheid; they attend Springbok matches, but they all too happily cheer for the opposing team. The country's National Sports Council is even making moves to abolish the team, but Mandela intervenes. Wouldn't it be more unifying, he wonders, to make all the people of his country, black and white, love the Springboks? And so he woos Francois, drawing him into a Springbok image makeover that includes sending the team into townships to play ball with the impoverished black kids who live there.
And that, in a more succinct nutshell than the rambling filmmaker Eastwood would ever give us, is the gist of "Invictus," a mildly rousing and reasonably satisfying picture about one man's efforts to mend the rifts among his countrymen. "Invictus" is much longer than it needs to be: Like most of Eastwood's movies, it drags when it needs to sprint. The first half-hour in particular is a slog, a Mandela primer in which Freeman gets to show off how suitable he is to play a great world leader. He makes much use of the patented sly, witty smile, turning it on as if on cue, and imparts words of wisdom in gently rolling, master-thespian tones. Admittedly, after you've been the voice of God weighing in on the life-and-death saga of penguins, there probably aren't many heights left to scale. Playing a figure as lauded and beloved as Nelson Mandela is an understandable next step.
But if you can get through that first half-hour of setup, "Invictus" becomes both more ideologically resonant and more fun. Once Freeman has established that he's playing a Great Man, he relaxes a bit and starts to play a human being. And even Damon's hair begins to look less comical. Eastwood is often lauded for his great artistry as a filmmaker, though more often than not he's merely trotting out hoary clichés (both thematic and visual) and cobbling them together in rickety constructions that vaguely resemble a grand, old-Hollywood style of filmmaking. Eastwood's style isn't interesting; what is interesting about him, particularly in more recent movies like "Gran Torino," is his B-movie-style bluntness when it comes to social issues. In "Gran Torino," he played a retired Detroit autoworker who was at first dismayed to find his nice white neighborhood invaded by Hmong immigrants. And then gradually, he gets to know his neighbors as people and realizes they have the same sturdy values of family and community that younger white people -- even members of his own family -- have lost. He also realizes he just likes them.
Is that idea blindly conservative or socially progressive? It's both, which is why, when he's not making dreary prestige pictures like "Changeling," Eastwood's sensibility (if not his color-by-numbers filmmaking) offers some intriguing puzzles and contradictions. "Invictus" is deeply conventional in many ways: There are places where Eastwood and his regular cinematographer Tom Stern let the camera linger on an image or a face (usually Freeman's) for too long, the better to allow us to drink in what they perceive as its greatness -- and a little greatness goes a long way.
But for a picture with so much invested in its staunch sense of social justice, "Invictus" ultimately goes down not as medicine but as entertainment. The script, by Anthony Peckham (adapted from John Carlin's book, "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation"), makes its points clearly and succinctly, alluding just often enough to Mandela's 27-year imprisonment under the repressive white South African government. Eastwood isn't trying to give us a primer on South African history, thank God. But he does make use of bold shorthand to convey a sense of the conflicts and adjustments that South African citizens have had to struggle with. At one point he shows Francois' parents (played by Patrick Lyster and Penny Downie), sitting placidly in front of the television news, making cheerfully dismissive comments about Mandela's policies as their black housekeeper (Sibongile Nojila) silently irons in the background -- when she looks up at the television screen, what she sees there obviously means something very different to her. As a device, that shot is as obvious as hell; then again, apartheid wasn't subtle, and its scars haven't been easy to smooth over.
Eastwood eases up considerably when it comes time to show us the big decisive match against the New Zealand team. He doesn't shoot the game in a way that would help outsiders understand it, but at least he keeps things moving. By this point, Freeman has completely eased into the performance. The movie doesn't have to stress that Mandela was never much of a rugby fan. And so, in the picture, when he allows himself to be pulled out of a meeting of international bigwigs to be informed of a crucial Springbok victory, Freeman plays the moment with the grace of an unselfconscious, excited kid: By that point, Mandela has been caught up in the thrill of the sport -- it's no longer just a diplomatic tool. Damon, too, comes to look more comfortable in his role as an overgrown galoot, and he adds some shading to it: As Francois becomes swept up in Mandela's plan, his enthusiasm makes him almost physically buoyant -- his muscles no longer seem to weigh him down.
And at the beginning of that final match, we'll see Francois' parents standing with their housekeeper, singing the newly adopted South African national anthem. The father struggles with the words, but at least he's trying. "Invictus" is a strange piece of work. At its worst, it's ploddingly inspirational. But Eastwood, regardless of what his personal politics are, does seem to be using this episode from recent history as a way of reminding us that even social changes that appear to descend upon us rapidly have, in reality, been years in the making. Problems don't fix themselves overnight, or without effort. There's no point at which a society, or a country, can say, "We're finished changing now."