Movies: Invictus * * *
Morgan Freeman has been hoping to make a film about Nelson Mandela for some years. It was he who purchased the film rights to John Carlin's book, Playing the Enemy, in 2007 and persuaded his friend Clint Eastwood to come on board as director.
Freeman was always the natural choice to play the great man, a role he embodies here with commendable aplomb. And if Invictus has a number of significant problems, Morgan Freeman is definitely not among them.
The film opens in 1994, as Mandela, a former ANC revolutionary who had only been released from Robben Island four years previously, swept to power on a tide of emotion in South Africa's first free and fair elections. The rulers of the old regime waited in trepidation for the backlash that might have been their just desserts, but they had not reckoned on the unifying genius of Mandela.
The new president realised that South Africa's only hope of surviving as a sovereign nation was to put its violent past behind it and find a way of bringing black and white together. His constant refrain was forgiveness and magnanimity, and he even saw unifying potential in the solidly white and Afrikaans-dominated game of rugby.
As Mandela wrestled with his country's various and overwhelming problems, the South African national team, the Springboks, were preparing to host the Rugby World Cup in 1995 and, as the tournament loomed, the once-proud rugby nation was struggling for form. After they're trounced at home by the English, the coach and manager are sacked and only the Springboks' flinty captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), remains in his post. But, as the World Cup nears, morale is definitely low.
All of this the wily Mandela observes with interest. At this time most blacks hated rugby because of its associations, but he had played it as a youth. And while he'd always cheered for anyone but the Springboks while in prison, he now realised that the 'Rainbow Nation' might be brought a step closer if he could persuade the black majority to get behind the team.
In Francois Pienaar, he found a willing accomplice. Though from sturdy Afrikaans stock, Pienaar was a forward-thinking man who had no doubts about the ills of apartheid and was ready for change. When Mandela invites him to the presidential palace he is hugely impressed, and the men form a bond that will be vital to the Springboks' fortunes in the World Cup.
The remarkable thing about all of this is that it's absolutely true. Mandela really did work behind the scenes to inspire a revival in fortunes for South African rugby that might inspire and unite his nation. He persuaded the initially horrified team out into the townships to train with the local children and earn their support, and Mandela was very prominent at the World Cup itself, breaking the taboo of the hated green-and-gold Springbok jersey by wearing it to games himself.
It's a remarkable, wonderful story, and the last thing this film needed to do was ramp up the emotion in telling it -- sadly, however, that's pretty much what Eastwood does. Solidly made in many ways, Invictus pours on the sentiment wherever possible, and Eastwood's use of clumsily appropriate music jars with what dramatic tension there is. There's not much of that, however, because nobody seems to have bothered to give the film a dramatic arc.
The rugby scenes are problematic, too -- they're just a bit stilted and silly. A good five inches shorter than the actual Francois Pienaar, Matt Damon looks about as convincing a rugby player as Glenda Gilson. And by the end you've been so bombarded with goodness that you feel like you've eaten too much candyfloss.
An opportunity has been missed then, but Eastwood's Invictus remains pretty enjoyable. And Freeman is wonderful to watch as Mandela, perfectly catching his stiff walk, unique cadence and that compelling mix of humility and steely determination.