TMN Sports Movie Review: "Invictus"

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

Rating: PG-13
Length: 134 minutes
Release Date: Decelmber 11, 2009
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Genre: Biography / Drama / History

There are few famous figures in history, especially recent history, that have a story as dramatic as Nelson Mandela. Both Mandela and South African apartheid have long served as film inspiration. In 1987, when the soon to be South African president was still serving a long prison sentence, Danny Glover portrayed him in the biopic "Mandela." Other actors who have played the figure include Sidney Poitier in the 1997 TV drama "Mandela and de Klerk" and Dennis Haybert in 2007's "The Color of Freedom."

However, in "Invictus" Nelson Mandela is portrayed by a prestigious actor who not only knew the late world leader, but was friends with him for two decades. Morgan Freeman does play the role of Mandela in "Invictus," which is not a biopic as such, but rather the story of the president's early days in office and his relationship with the South Africa national rugby union team during a turbulent time. By focusing on this one period of Mandela's long and varied life, "Invictus" offers a story that is powerful and uplifting.

South Africa's transition to a democracy is something which has been studied and analyzed at length. Many facets of that historical story could have made for interesting cinematic fodder. For his book "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation," journalist John Carlin decided to focus on the country's rugby team.

It may seem like a reach to focus on sport in a story about apartheid, politics and far-reaching historical events. This is at least true for those unaware of the significance of the Springboks and what they represented during this period. However, Carlin, "Invictus" screenwriter Anthony Peckham and director Clint Eastwood saw the importance in this particular story, as well as its potential for potency in literary and film form.

As apartheid in the country ended, South Africa looked towards a very different future. The Springboks represented certain aspects of history that many South Africans would have preferred to leave in the past. To people who were oppressed under apartheid, the almost all-white Springboks symbolized an oppressive culture. In fact, at the time, rugby in general had mostly white fans.

Going against popular opinion, the new president actually threw his support behind the team. Playing the leader with a grace, charm and stoicism few other actors could achieve, Freeman inhabits Mandela in a part that he had been waiting to play for quite some time. Mandela understood that the country needed unification on a profound level, and with Freeman's performance, his intentions and actions seem clear and intelligent.

In addition to Freeman, the other big name behind "Invictus" is Matt Damon. As Springboks captain Francois Pienaar, Damon is reserved yet physically commanding. Pienaar is no match for Mandela's charisma, even when the president encourages the rugby captain to focus on winning the World Cup. At the time, this seemed like a pipe dream at best, but it was scheduled to be held in South Africa.

Mandela's decision to support the Springboks, as divisive as the team was, turns out to have a large and unifying effect on a country still deeply divided. The South African president was admittedly a rugby fan. However, through the events portrayed in "Invictus," he demonstrated a political brilliance that helped make him the legendary figure that he remains in the minds of so many throughout the world.

What happens with the Springboks and the 1995 Rugby World Cup is now a matter of record. Even if it was not, viewers would likely be able to predict the outcome. However, thanks to not only the acting but also Clint Eastwood's expert direction, it is impossible to remain unmoved as this uplifting, true story plays out. By this point, Eastwood has proven himself time and again as one of the most solid directors working today. Even with a project that is something of a departure for him, Eastwood delivers a film that is smart yet still enormously accessible, with large amounts of mainstream appeal.

The main rugby plot of "Invictus" is bolstered by other story lines. There are gripping scenes of Mandela's early days as president. There is also a subplot about the leader's racially diverse security team overcoming their long-held prejudices. In lesser hands, it might have come across as cliché, but, like everything else about this film, it is compelling and inspirational instead.

Expectations were understandably high for a Nelson Mandela biopic starring Morgan Freeman. Clint Eastwood in the director's chair only added to the anticipation. While "Invictus" tells only a short story within the much larger scope of Mandela's life, it is a story that is worth telling and plays wonderfully onscreen thanks to worthy acting and direction.

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