‘Invictus’ recalls a winning game

In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros., Morgan Freeman portrays Nelson Mandela, left, and Matt Damon portrays Francois Pienaar in a scene from the film
In this film publicity image released by Warner Bros., Morgan Freeman portrays Nelson Mandela, left, and Matt Damon portrays Francois Pienaar in a scene from the film " Invictus."

“Invictus” is Clint Eastwood’s latest and most unexpected foray in his one-man campaign to make movies the way they used to be made.

Instead of a thriller, war movie or Western, the director has turned out a stirring drama about South African leader Nelson Mandela, blending entertainment, social message and history lesson in a way that recalls such decades-old films as “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” “The Life of Emile Zola” and “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet.” The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Eastwood, who will be 80 in 2010, understands the flow of narrative in a way younger directors might envy. Working with co-stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, he doesn’t allow anything, especially splashy technique, to get in the way of simply telling a story.

The story he tells, based on a script by Anthony Peckham, is far from the ordinary great-man tale. It focuses on one particular moment in history when the newly elected Mandela, played by Freeman, tried something so brazen, so risky, that his closest advisers were not only against it, but considered it political suicide.

As detailed in journalist John Carlin’s “Playing the Enemy,” the excellent book on which the screenplay is based, Mandela, in his usual “half-instinctive, half-calculating way,” came up with the notion of using sport in general and rugby in particular in a manner that no one had ever thought of before. He decided to use his country’s most divisive symbol to unite South Africa’s white population (fearful of being marginalized after Mandela replaced decades of apartheid government) with long-oppressed fellow countrymen.

“Invictus” opens with a 1990 motorcade driving a just-freed Mandela from his Robben Island prison. On one side of the road, black South Africans take time out from soccer to cheer loudly; on the other side, their white counterparts are playing rugby and listening as their coach says: “It’s the terrorist Mandela. They let him out. This is the day our country went to the dogs.”

It’s not just that different races played different games, it’s that over the years the national rugby team, the green-and-gold-wearing Springboks, became so much the symbol of apartheid that during international competitions, South African blacks would cheer fiercely for whatever country was playing on the other side.

It is one of the intriguing aspects of Freeman’s nuanced portrayal that it reminds us that Mandela was hardly a young man, but age 71 when he was released after 27 years in prison, and even older when he became president four years later. Freeman’s Mandela is a figure of dignity, even solemnity, but also someone whose faith in other people brought out the warmth in them and him.

“Invictus” also shows us that Mandela paid a personal price for his political convictions. Estranged from his wife and his eldest daughter, he lives completely alone and when someone on his security detail asks about his family, he replies “I have a very large family: 42 million.”

Aside from his chief of staff, Brenda Mazibuko (Adjoa Andoh), security specialists Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge) and Linga Moonsamy (Patrick Mofokeng) are closest to him, and they are shocked when he insists they integrate their team with men from the Special Branch, the former enforcers of apartheid.

“Forgiveness liberates the soul,” he tells them. “That’s why its such a powerful weapon.”

Those close to Mandela are even more shocked when he decides to fully embrace the Springboks in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, even though the team is so weak that only its host-nation status got it into the tournament. If his government is to have the support of the white elite, he says, “we have to prove we are not what they feared. We have to surprise them with compassion.”

To get the Springboks to work with him, Mandela uses his considerable personal to charm to enlist the help of their normally apolitical captain, Francois Pienaar. Though he’s noticeably shorter than the 6-foot-3-inch athlete, the chameleon-like Damon has gone buff and blond, transforming himself into a believable participant in this very rough sport. Pienaar’s role has also been buffed up (in real life, the team’s manager, Morne du Plessis, was also influential), but Damon carries it convincingly.

Fully half of “Invictus” is taken up with that World Cup tournament, as South Africa takes on the great nations of the rugby world, including the fierce All Blacks of New Zealand (named for their dark uniforms). Though the action on the field (expertly photographed by Tom Stern and crisply edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach) can be followed in a general way by nonfans, the film could have used more explanation, which, an article by screenwriter Peckham in Script Magazine hints, was written but didn’t make the final cut.

“Invictus” is named after a poem by William Ernest Henley, a favorite of Mandela, who was inspired by its last two lines: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

This popular Victorian-era work is not on the top of school reading lists anymore, but it just might be the latest old-fashioned form that Eastwood’s skill brings back to life.

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