Clint Eastwood, director. Anthony Peckham, script based on Playing the Enemy by John Carlin. Starring: Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela), Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar)
Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood, whose potent pairing in Million Dollar Baby produced multiple Oscars have returned to the screen with Invictus. Once again, Eastwood is the director but this time he’s not the star. The main role here, quite appropriately, is Freeman’s, who plays South Africa’s iconic leader Nelson Mandela as well as being the film’s executive producer. Freeman’s co-star is Matt Damon playing South African rugby star Francois Pienaar and although there’s a large supporting cast, the film is essentially about the two men.
A bit of history is required to enjoy Invictus. Mandela had become a world-renowned figure while spending 28 years in prison for opposing South Africa’s apartheid policy, which segregated blacks and “coloured” peoples, leaving the white minority in charge of the country. Though he had advocated violence as a last resort against a racist regime, Mandela had become a believer in a “peace and reconciliation” process by the time he was finally released from prison in 1990.
It’s widely acknowledged that Mandela’s pursuit of peaceful methods for reintegrating blacks and whites into a multiracial society saved the country from violence and bloodshed. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 along with the last white South African President de Klerk, whom he succeeded into office in 1994.
In 1995, when the action in Invictus takes place, Mandela was looking for ways to unite the country. One of the areas of racial divide was sports, where whites dominated rugby while football (or soccer as North Americans call it) had become a game played mainly by blacks. With the Rugby World Cup coming to South Africa, Mandela seized the opportunity to make the Springboks, the country’s national rugby team, a source of pride.
Helping him to do this was Francois Pienaar, South Africa’s major star and captain of the team. Though ranked ninth in the world, an inspired Springboks team took on the world, leading to a stirring final match where underdogs South Africa met and beat a tough New Zealand squad.
It’s a great and true story. Morgan Freeman is superb as Mandela and Damon is fine as Pienaar. So what’s the problem? Sadly, it’s Eastwood, who undoubtedly took on the project for good reasons; he certainly doesn’t need another paycheck!
And yet, the direction is flat throughout. We don’t get a real sense of how South Africa’s blacks decided to support the Springboks. Of course, Mandela was supportive and Pienaar turned out to be a great sportsman, saying and doing the right things, but surely there must have been more of a struggle to change the general public’s thinking about rugby.
Mandela comes across as a black Abraham Lincoln—saintly and brilliant orator. Which he is, no doubt, but there must be more to the man than that. There are scenes that indicate Mandela’s dilemma: father to a new nation but not that good with his own children. But it all feels a bit perfunctory.
Still, you can’t go wrong with Invictus. The story is so amazing that an audience will surely embrace it. And Nelson Mandela personally endorsed Freeman to play him on screen, quite an accolade on its own. It’s just a pity that a potentially great film has become a pretty good one.