That noise you hear at the multiplex this holiday weekend is the gobbling of turkeys from New Moon to Old Dogs. To boost morale, mine and yours, I want to point to a genuinely inspiring movie event opening next month. It’s called Invictus (Latin for unconquered). Clint Eastwood directed it so you know the scaffolding of this tremendously exciting true story will be sturdy and artfully presented with humor, heart, rich characterization and a notable absence of bullshit. Invictus is about a newly elected black President struggling to unite citizens divided by racism. The name Obama never comes up — it couldn’t since the time is 1995 and the place is South Africa. The President is Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) who was voted into office the year before in the country’s first free election. The challenge facing Mandela is to find a way to make peace with the apartheid forces that put him in jail for three decades. Mandela figures that battle should take place on, of all things, the rugby field. A little background here:
For the blacks in South Africa, rugby was a symbol of the Afrikaners, the white forces behind apartheid. Mandela believed that if he could harness the power of the Springboks, the South African team captained by François Pienaar (Matt Damon), and host the 1995 rugby World Cup games, he could cross a racial and cultural divide and unite a nation.
The source material for Eastwood’s exceptional film is John Carlin’s book Playing The Enemy: Nelson Mandela And The Game That Changed a Nation. That subtitle is pushing it since the factors that have separated powerful whites and justifiably angry blacks for centuries in South Africa can hardly be reconciled by one game. But there’s little doubt that the game pitting the Springboks against New Zealand’s team was a major start in the healing process.
Eastwood, shooting on location in Cape Town and enlisting Chester Williams (the single black player on the Springboks team) to coach Damon, lets action define character. The rubgy action electrifies the movie. But the performances make Invictus a movie you bring home with you. Damon may be shorter than Pienaar’s 6’4″ Afrikaner god. But he brings athleticism and grace to the role and a sense of burning conscience. Freeman seems born to play Mandela, and he never delivers a false note. Even when the script nudges him toward sainthood, Freeman makes us see the wily politician always percolating inside Mandela and his indelible, bone-deep performance ranks with the year’s best. Freeman reads the poem by William Ernest Henley that comforted Mandela in prison and gives the film its title. The final line sums up the man: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.”
Eastwood’s modest approach to these momentous events shames the showboating that passes for filmmaking in today’s Hollywood. Invictus reveals a master at the top of his game. Eastwood’s achievement is something rare: he’s made a film that actually is good for the soul.