It must be considered a serious come-down to go from playing God to merely portraying a saint, but that’s basically the trajectory that Morgan Freeman has taken in following up his turn as the deity in “Bruce Almighty” with his turn as Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus.” It’s basically as an almost impossibly good and kindly man that Freeman portrays the South African leader who emerged from decades in captivity to maneuver his country to racial understanding and a fragile unity in the post-apartheid era that might have brought endless animosity, even civil war, instead.
That’s not to deny that Mandela’s gentle, soft-spoken, inclusive approach to governing, and his willingness to forgive those who had treated him so brutally, weren’t remarkable, even saintly, in their own right. Nor does Eastwood’s film, scripted by Anthony Peckham, ignore the political calculation that lay behind his policies, in terms of both fostering domestic harmony and encouraging international financial support for his nation, which was struggling to rebuild its economy after punishing sanctions had been removed. But it does mean that there’s a mostly one-note tone to Freeman’s performance, a sense of overwhelming calm that threatens to benumb the entire film. We get only the most fleeting introduction, for example, to Mandela’s family problems (in one sequence we learn that he and his wife are estranged)—precisely the sort of material that, if more thoroughly treated, would have added a deeper layer to the man.
But “Invictus” isn’t intended as a full portrait of Mandela. It focuses on a single aspect of his early presidential policy—the decision, initially very unpopular among the rank-and-file of his own party, to support the continued existence of the national rugby team, the Springboks, the darlings of Afrikaners but hated by blacks. Not only that—he encourages the squad, which has been doing dreadfully on the field, to improve and become a real contender for the World Cup, which is scheduled to be held in South Africa in 1995, as a means of helping to bridge the racial divide.
That connects him with Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), the team captain—an intense but essentially apolitical fellow who’s disarmed by the president’s avuncular treatment and moved to inspire his colleagues to previously unheard-of levels of commitment and, eventually, patriotic service to the “new” biracial nation toward which most are initially hostile. And it contrasts the quieter sections focusing on Freeman with almost-equal segments showing the team training, engaging with poor township children to promote interest in rugby among them and their families, and—most importantly—action as the World Cup revs up and they’re the underdogs in contests against strong opponents, especially a culminating game with a crushingly powerful New Zealand team ironically called the All Blacks (because of their uniform color).
Such action-filled footage certainly balances the measured tread of the Mandela material, but it’s hampered by two things. One is that the rules of rugby, largely unknown to American audiences, are never clearly laid out. The best one can tell is that a team scores by kicking a kind of field goal worth three points. But everything else—including all-important time limits clocked by umpires—goes blithely unexplained. Viewers unfamiliar with the game may find the scrum a particularly puzzling business.
But that’s really not as significant as the fact that the narrative thrust of the picture is also about as formulaically uplifting as that of every inspirational sports movie you’ve ever seen. You know you’re in “Rocky” mode when Mandela stops to say to a subordinate—but really to the audience—“Then it’s really important that we beat Australia.” The script may not carefully set forth the rugby rules, but it’s certainly obvious in directing you to the dramatic necessities. And the fact that it’s based on the historical record doesn’t make it any less sadly predictable.
That’s also characteristic of Eastwood’s direction, which admirers will call straightforward and detractors dull. There’s certainly clarity to his presentation, but it also often comes across as oddly muted and passionless. Still, it does allow Freeman ample opportunity to express Mandela’s essential goodness, with those occasional glimmers of the political astuteness behind the ostensible calm. And it permits Damon to offer a performance that’s so fine that its excellence probably won’t even get much notice. He doesn’t exaggerate in the tentativeness of his off-field scenes, and looks absolutely authentic in the physical bits; he even gets the accent right. The supporting cast offer naturalistic turns that don’t exclude some nicely humorous moments, especially for those first shown as antagonistic who warm to each other as the plot runs on.
Technically what marks “Invictus” is Eastwood’s customary no-nonsense approach. Tom Stern’s cinematography is, like everything else, of the no-frills variety, and makes good use of the South African locations; the physical production is similarly plain; and the editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach is smooth, if unimaginative. The only irritating element is the music score by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens, which includes a couple of obtrusive songs.
“Invictus” focuses on a great man and a fascinating political story. But in this telling it proves more hagiography than biography, and one rampant with the cliches that mark all come-from-behind underdog sports movies. It winds up an inspirational tale told in an uninspired way.