By Aaron Mesh
begins with Nelson Mandela’s release from 27 years of political imprisonment, dashes through some archival footage of the disintegration of apartheid and suddenly is in the midst of that improbable moment when a black man became the president of South Africa. Off for his daily 4 am jog, Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, is confronted with an Afrikaner newspaper headline: “He can win an election, but can he run a country?” Mandela thinks it’s a legitimate question. “It’s a legitimate question,” he says.
He decides to answer it by rallying the nation around the Springboks rugby team. This is roughly the equivalent of Barack Obama wooing the birthers by becoming a fan of the Atlanta Braves. Can Mandela pull it off? Wait for it: Yes he can.
Invictus is not a standard sports movie, but it is not much more subtle than a standard sports movie.
"Forgiveness liberates the soul," Mandela tells his chief bodyguard (Tony Kgoroge) as a way of explaining why he wants to integrate his security detail. "It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon."
The Mandela of this movie talks in aphorisms all of the time—when he is jogging, when he is having tea, when he is watching rugby. Freeman's portrayal has obvious gravitas and palpable honor—but where's the improvisation, the sense of pleasure in his political calculations? That side of the man goes missing under a carefully modulated accent.
The rugby half of the movie, with Matt Damon looking like a sandy-haired Tom Brady as the Springboks captain who collaborates with Mandela, does an effective job as an introduction to the sport. But the tension of the World Cup is also stymied by constant pauses for uplift.
Is there a song using a verse from the William Ernest Henley poem that gives the movie its title? Of course there is.
Is there a second ballad, also performed by the South African boy band Overtone, called “Colorblind”? Yep.
And there’s also a team visit to the prison on Robben Island, and the sight of Mandela’s actual gaol cell is powerful—until Damon looks out of the bars into the yard and sees a vision of Freeman hammering rocks while his voice-over recites a stanza from “Invictus.” (“I thank whatever gods there be/For my unconquerable soul.”)
The movie bludgeons you with inspiration.
Having honed his directing skills this long, Eastwood is probably incapable of making a completely terrible movie—although he can certainly make a boring one. The best scenes in Invictus show the mostly white rugby team traveling to shantytowns and teaching black children how to play a sport from which they were once excluded. Mandela interrupts a staff meeting to watch the goodwill visit on the news. “You see that?” he asks. “That picture is worth any number of speeches.” It is.
But then we go back to the speeches.