Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge
Directed by: Clint Eastwood (“Gran Torino”)
Written by: Anthony Peckham (“Don’t Say a Word”)
Rather than give us a straightforward biopic about Nelson Mandela, two-time Oscar winning director Clint Eastwood (“Million Dollar Baby”) takes the spirit of the former President of South Africa and captures the essence of his political achievement and activism in the affecting film “Invictus.” More than an inspiring story, it enhances the definition of “inspirational sports drama.”
Starring Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”) as Mandela, “Invictus,” which is based on the John Carlin book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation,” tells the story of how the former President used the sport of rugby to help unite a nation split by anger and resentment.
The film begins with the release of Mandela from prison in 1990. Mandela, who had been incarcerated for 28 years for crimes committed as an anti-apartheid activist, returned to the political spotlight soon after his release and was elected the country’s first black President four years later. After 46 years of apartheid, South Africa was at a turning point and Mandela was at the forefront of managing civil unrest.
To impede the racial power struggle in his homeland, Mandela, who recognized the passion his fellow countrymen had for rugby, recruits rugby captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to lead the national team to victory. Mandela’s theory was that their success on the field would bring a sense of pride to South Africa everyone could share together as a unified country.
Mandela, however, didn’t want the team, which was known at the Springbok, to simply improve. He wanted them to win the 1995 World Cup. Doing this would not only pose a challenge for the fairly average rugby team. Mandela would have to sell his idea to black South Africans, who preferred soccer and viewed the almos all-white Springbok as a sad reminder of their segregated past.
In a classic and low-key performance, Freeman encapsulates Mandela with conviction although screenwriter Anthony Peckham doesn’t explore multiple layers that make up the iconic leader. Instead, “Invictus” plays more symbolically especially when Freeman’s Mandela uses respect and kindheartedness in attempt to realize to his political aspirations.
There might be a bit of an emotional disconnection since Eastwood and Peckham don’t explain much of anything when it comes to apartheid (study up before you come to the theater to understand the historical significance), but overall “Invictus” is all about precision and heart both on and off the rugby field.