When Maty and I went to view the new Clint Eastwood effort Invictus, I have to admit I was a bit leery. After all, how many so-called "feel-good" flicks have I endured only to leave the theater feeling sheepish and let down? All too often have I come away from such films feeling like some ill-willed curmudgeon because I found the sentiments therein to be shallow and juvenile. Nonetheless, hope springs eternal, as they say.
Invictus is an account of the early days of post-apartheid South Africa with President Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) newly-elected and stepping into office. It is 1995 and South Africa is host to the Rugby World Cup. In seeking to reconcile the various racial factions in the new era, Mandela recognizes the national rugby team, the Springboks, as a vehicle to define a new national identity. The problem is that the green-and-gold Springboks are a symbol of the oppressive apartheid regime and therefore despised by the nation's coloreds. Even though his aides and advisers warn him that he risks alienating his political base, Mandela recruits the captain of the national rugby team, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to his cause.
As events proceed, South Africans slowly overcome their mutual mistrust and fall in behind their underdog rugby team. The culmination occurs when the Springboks face down the intimidating All Blacks of New Zealand in the championship match. By this time, the attitudes of all South Africans, coloreds and whites, have changed considerably from those displayed at the opening of the film.
This film works. The narrative is understated and blissfully free of obvious tug-at-the-heartstrings kitsch, which I believe is the only way a film like this can succeed. Eastwood is subtle and dispassionate as he depicts the transition, from mistrust to fraternity, of South Africans from all walks of life: Mandela's personal security team (which includes former officers of the feared apartheid-enforcing Special Branch), slum-dwelling children, black political activists, middle-class Boers, and the rugby players themselves.
Morgan Freeman's portrayal of Nelson Mandela is nuanced and disciplined. Matt Damon also does a fine job as the tough-as-nails rugby captain who recognizes Mandela's motives and, compelled by admiration, steps forward to help in the effort.
And, to the extent that the film is historical, it is an homage to Mandela himself, who is endowed with rare wisdom and the strength that comes only to those who have survived hell.