Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela-- it feels so right when you first think of it, doesn't it? The two look so similar that children growing up during the era of both apartheid and Driving Miss Daisy could be forgiven for confusing the two. But Freeman, despite his many talents and uncanny ability to seem like a comforting paternal figure, isn't exactly a chameleon, and while he very much looks the part of Mandela in Invictus, the transformation into the halting-voiced leader of a nation is never quite complete.
Such is the problem with much of Invictus, a movie filled with many moments that do work, struggling mightily against heavy, heavy clunkers that do not. As evidenced very much in last year's Gran Torino, director Clint Eastwood doesn't exactly have a light touch when it comes to race relations, so the Mandela portion of his film often features scenes so transparent, the director may as well step on the screen and proclaim "Why can't we all just get along?" As for the rugby, which makes up the other half, it's a very classic story about an underdog team rising from the top, and the movie thrums along nicely on the usual sports movie tropes. If only anyone had bothered to tell us exactly how rugby is played.
The important thing, though, is that the remarkable true story behind Invictus is properly told, and with a gravity that makes all the stakes clear. When Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa in 1994, the country was still deeply divided over the wounds from apartheid, and even the white members of the Presidential staff were convinced that Mandela would fire them immediately in favor of blacks. Meanwhile the national rugby team the Springboks remained a symbol of the apartheid era, bearing the old South African flag's color of green and gold and boasting just one black team member.
Despite overwhelming black support for abolishing the team altogether, Mandela meets with the team's captain Francois Pineaar (Matt Damon) to convince him that the team's success could mean much bigger, metaphorical things for the country at large. Pineaar accepts the challenge without much question, and participates in both the Mandela-encouraged publicity campaign for the team and good old fashioned work, culminating in a Rugby World Cup championship game that absolutely no one could have expected.
Given that the basic beats of the plot are part of the historical record, most directors would have thrown in some human elements, some twists or turns, to make the experience more interesting. Not Eastwood. He goes along with the story at his own pace, offering up both tensions among the Springboks (forgettable) and among Mandela's mixed-race bodyguard unit (quite memorable) as if we don't know that everyone, black and white, will be united when the Springboks win in the end. Some truly atrocious music choices, like the very literal original song "Colorblind" in the middle of the film, drive the point into the ground, and a finale shot showing both a white and black hand clutching a rugby trophy makes you wonder exactly how stupid Eastwood thinks we are.
And yet, the movie works, maybe because of all the easily digestible lessons of racial tolerance and sports movie cliches. We may have absolutely no idea how scoring works in rugby, but we get the general idea when a ball sails between two goalposts and the crowd goes wild. We may not be able to fathom what it's like to oppress a minority for decades and then, five years later, elect a member of that minority as President, but early scenes of Mandela's outdoor inauguration before a crowd of thousands do ring a certain bell. Invictus works in broad strokes, and given that it's a movie that seems to only want to evoke the broadest emotions out of you, you've got to credit it for that.
Despite the stellar actors at its center, the biggest problem of Invictus is its two main characters. Mandela is a powerful force, and even displays a sense of humor once in a while, but he mostly speaks in aphorisms about tolerance and strength and perseverance, especially when bringing up the poem that gives the movie its mystifying title. As for Pineaar, his motivations beyond "win the game" are completely mysterious. How did he himself feel about the end of apartheid? Does he believe in Mandela's crazy notion about rugby as a national unifier? It's not that Damon doesn't try, but he's given so few lines of dialogue that we're never even given the chance to find out.
There's a way to go along with Invictus, which is mostly to focus on the sports side, and there's a way to feel clobbered by the obvious messages and Mandela's too-saintly presence. I chose to go with it and found myself moved. Your mileage may vary.