Friday, December 11, 2009

Invictus

INVICTUS (Clint Eastwood, 2009)

In INVICTUS a newly elected Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) turns to an unlikely group to help heal the racial divide in post-apartheid South Africa. After spending 27 years behind bars, Mandela is freed from Robben Island Prison in 1990 and continues working toward his goal of making the country a multi-racial democracy.

Four years later Mandela is the president of a nation still deeply split along racial lines. While black South Africans look forward to benefiting from having one of their own as the country's leader, the Afrikaners fear what they might face as a minority population under the rule of a black man.

At a rugby match Mandela observes that old tensions still thrive. Blacks in attendance cheer against South Africa's national team, the Springboks. To them, the Springboks represent the prejudice and oppression they were subjected to under apartheid.

With South Africa hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela sees a unique opportunity for blacks and whites to rally around the team and perhaps build national harmony. Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) is tasked with the duty of making the team an inspiration for all South Africans.

Sports can breed deep and ugly rivalries, but they also have a way of unifying people from uncommon backgrounds and interests, whether it's the players or those cheering them on. This is especially true in international competitions, even if the sports themselves may not be ones that viewers are concerned with except every four years.

In INVICTUS director Clint Eastwood does a sharp job of showing Mandela's political genius in utilizing a team that symbolized the old white establishment--and which had only one black player--to demonstrate how South Africa's present and future could unify former opponents.

It was a risky maneuver and not one encouraged by his advisers, but just as Mandela understood that he needed to integrate his personal security team behind a common purpose, he also knew that the nation needed something to strive for collectively.

Carrying over the wise, fatherly influence he brings to other roles, Freeman applies a firm but calming presence to his portrayal of Mandela. It's a persuasive performance that leads one to see how this man could overcome the enormous odds of bridging the gap in South Africa's racial relations.

While INVICTUS fits into the biographical and inspirational sports movie traditions, Eastwood resists sanctifying Mandela or giving in to unabashed emotionalism on the pitch. The director references Mandela's shortcomings as a man bearing a heavy weight and allows the actions to say more than speeches.

Although INVICTUS is not strictly a Mandela biopic, this particular accomplishment of his cuts to the essence of who the South African is and what he fought for. INVICTUS could do a better job of explaining the basic rules to rugby neophytes, especially with so much of the final act devoted to the big match, but that's a minor quibble when the gist of gameplay can be picked up by observing.

INVICTUS draws its title from the name of a William Ernest Henley poem that inspired Mandela during his incarceration. Likewise, the film serves as a reminder that no matter how dire the circumstances, truly remarkable change is possible.

Grade: B

(Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

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