A retelling of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final may ring like a box office death knell. But wait. Invictus is also the story of Nelson Mandela’s inspired attempt, on becoming President of South Africa, to unite a racially divided nation. Invictus is about the power of politics and sport to heal a country.
And who else could play Mandela than Morgan Freeman – Eastwood’s buddy (Unforgiven) and, crucially, Mandela’s own choice of actor? And his performance makes the movie. Invictus may be over-saintly in its approach, but Freeman’s Mandela is not an impression, it’s an incarnation.
Released from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela is the new President of South Africa. Against advice, he scotches triumphalism and sets about laying the foundations for a united country. Starting with his own security entourage – he doesn’t want to be seen in public with only his own countrymen – Mandela creates a fragile administration of all colours. But what about the nation?
Due to host the Rugby World Cup in 1995, Mandela sees it as an opportunity for unity: but the almost whites-only team isn’t supported by half of the populace. Gaining the trust of team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), Mandela negotiates a political minefield – and encourages the nation to set the past aside in support of a rag-tag team, to show the world a new South Africa, a rainbow nation.
Based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin, Invictus takes its title from the poem of the name by William Ernest Henley which was a source of inspiration to the imprisoned Mandela (“My head is bloody but unbowed…I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul”). And Eastwood clearly means the film to be inspiring.
As a political drama it’s engaging, unusual and insightful. But there’s a flatness that’s hard to shake. For Clint, it’s a surprisingly literal approach. Too many lines plump for the obvious – “Thank you Francois”, “No, thank you Mr. President”. It’s enough for Pienaar to visit Mandela’s cell – but overlapped images of Mandela’s imprisonment tip it too far.
Director and star (Damon) knew no rugby, but the on-field action is stunning. Eastwood’s camera is in there with the ball, the audience buffeted in the scrums and scraps. If you don’t know the result of the match, there’s a frisson of excitement. If you do there’s less of an impact.
Superbly shot and peerlessly acted, it seems churlish to complain. But Eastwood’s poeticism has turned to prose with Invictus. His safest film in years, it’s an intelligent drama. But it’s still underwhelming.