Clint Eastwood’s potent new film is based on a true story 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.
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. The source material for Invictus (Latin for “unconquered”) is John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation. That’s pushing it, since the factors that have separated powerful whites and resentful 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 Johannesburg and Cape Town and enlisting Chester Williams (the single black player on the Springboks) to coach Damon, wisely lets action define character. The rugby action electrifies the movie. Damon may be shorter than Pienaar’s six-foot-four Afrikaner god, but he brings athletic 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 Anthony Peckham’s script nudges him into sainthood. Freeman lets us see the wily politician percolating underneath Mandela’s calm surface. Eastwood’s modest approach to these momentous events shames the usual Hollywood showboating. In a rare achievement, he’s made a film that truly is good for the soul.