With Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. 134 minutes.
Next May, Clint Eastwood turns 80. At a time when many are enjoying a well-deserved retirement the actor-turned-director is doing the very best work of his career. It’s unlikely they’ll be talking about “Every Which Way But Loose” fifty years from now, but movies like “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” – among others – will be considered classics. To that pantheon we must now add INVICTUS.
After acting and directing in last year’s “Gran Torino,” Eastwood remains behind the camera here, telling one of the tritest and overused of sports movie plots: the scrappy underdog team that has to win the big game. Ah, but context is everything. Based on John Carlin’s book “Playing The Enemy,” Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham tell the story of how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), seeking ways to unify racially divided South Africa instead of letting it slip into civil war, happens upon the nearly all-white South Africa rugby team. They are beloved figures among the white Afrikaners, so much so that blacks cheer for England against their own team in international matches.
Mandela sees that by embracing the team, and bringing his followers along with him, it sends a powerful symbolic message to the fearful whites: the newly empowered black majority does not want to eradicate everything about South Africa’s past. As the Afrikaners must accept the black majority as their fully empowered equals, Mandela wants to show by example that forgiveness and reconciliation can bring the country together. It’s not all about being nice. Most of the wealth and industrial power in the country is in white hands. It’s only by working together that the country will survive.
Team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) is depicted as someone who doesn’t pay much attention to such things. His father is a right-wing Afrikaner with little use for Mandela, but Pienaar himself has no problem leading a barely integrated team. When Mandela reaches out to him, he is honored but he’s not quite expecting what Mandela has in mind. The leader wants the team not only to become a symbol for all South Africa; he wants them to go on to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, a highly unlikely prospect ten months out.
The film follows their journey to the championship game and, unless you’re a rugby fan you probably have no idea how it turned out. Eastwood doesn’t spend too much time trying to explain the game to us. It’s similar to our football and we get just enough information to be able to follow the action. What’s important is the impact the game has, and even though we’ve seen the cheering throngs in countless movies, Eastwood makes it work here.
As Pienaar, Damon does a fine job, but this year is overshadowed by his more eccentric character in “The Informant!” However, Freeman seems born to the role, playing it as if he’s been waiting to show us how Mandela ought to be portrayed in a movie. “Invictus” (the title of which comes from a poem that inspired Mandela in prison) is, quite simply, one of the best movies of 2009.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.