Freeman teams up once again with director Eastwood (whose film Million Dollar Baby
earned the actor his one Oscar) to fulfill his longtime desire to portray onscreen South African president and international hero Nelson Mandela. The decision to reunite was a smart one for both men, who had also worked together quite successfully in Unforgiven
. Eastwood provides a confident and steady hand for this story, based on a historical chapter in the legendary leader’s life. His direction, though typically assured and understated, is nevertheless flabby at times here, and the film might have benefited from another pass through the editing bay. The story is based on John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation
and was adapted for the screen by Anthony Peckham (who is also one of the screenwriters of the upcoming film Sherlock Holmes
). The game in question is rugby, and the events surround Mandela’s enthusiastic support of the South African team’s attempt to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Although a fan of the sport, Mandela’s actions were born of an ulterior motive: that of building a post-apartheid nation. Understanding the emotional symbolism of sports culture, Mandela seized the opportunity to create what we call these days a “teachable moment.” With racial tensions high after his release from prison and ascension to the presidency, Mandela saw a means of bridging the fears between his newly powerful black constituency and the fearful white old guard. Rugby had been traditionally scorned by the black population of South Africa as an Afrikaners’ game. The country’s national team, the Springboks, was captained by Francois Pienaar (Damon – beefed up, or more likely slimmed down, from The Informant!
), who was in his own way struggling to figure out a way to successfully lead his teammates. Mandela first appeals to Pienaar, who learns from the master how to lead by example and surpass expectations. He also learns from Mandela the inspirational poem “Invictus,” with the oft-quoted line: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” On a more intimate scale, this learning experience about reconciliation and abandoning old grudges is played out quite successfully in scenes among Mandela’s bodyguards. His longtime bodyguards were clan members who had always been with him and had to be forced by Mandela to suddenly work alongside the white Afrikaners – enforcers who, only a few years ago, might have beaten and harassed the black population. Narratively, we all know where the trajectory of the story is headed, thus the culminating match (nearly 20 minutes) takes up too much screen time without adding anything new to the drama. Freeman, although brilliantly capturing Mandela’s speaking cadences, posture, and gait, never nails the accent (unlike Damon, to my ears). Furthermore, whenever I looked at the character’s face, I saw Freeman’s visage instead of Mandela’s, creating moments which break the film illusion. Yet Invictus
remains inspiring and educational, especially during this present time in America in which we are supposedly muddling our way into a post-racial society.