Morgan Freeman has officially played God several times in the movies, but he – or is it just his voice? – often seems God-like even when playing mere mortals. In the new Clint Eastwood movie “Invictus,” Freeman plays Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid crusader and a man I think can fairly be characterized a demigod. The challenge for Freeman and Eastwood was to humanize Mandela, while at the same time do his legend proud.
It’s a noble but ultimately contradictory impulse. “Invictus” has an understated grace, but too often it comes across as hero-worshipy.
The anthem-of-humanity story line is stirring and, as far as it goes, historically accurate. (The script by Anthony Peckham, a white South African émigré, is based on the book “Playing the Enemy,” by John Carlin.) Released from prison after nearly 30 years, Mandela in 1994 becomes president of South Africa and almost immediately launches a daring idea for uniting a dangerously divided nation. With the World Cup a year away, he attempts to rally his countrymen around the South African rugby team, the Springboks, whose members are almost entirely Afrikaners.
For South African blacks, the Springboks are long-time symbols of apartheid repression, and for a while Mandela’s mission seems stillborn. But his political instincts, indistinguishable from his humanistic ones, are unerring. “Forgiveness heals the soul” is his mantra. Plus he understands how powerfully sports can override racism.
Mandela reaches out to the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), a seemingly apolitical jock who, fired up, drives his team to the World Cup finals against the New Zealand team, All Blacks (the name refers to the mostly white team’s jerseys). The final showdown between these two, staged in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium, takes almost 20 minutes.
In “Invictus,” Eastwood doesn’t ignore the black-white hatreds within the country. There are, for example, some good, tense scenes early on between Mandela’s black security cadre and the newly arrived Afrikaner bodyguards. But he doesn’t exactly dwell on the hatreds, either. An aura of sanctity charges the atmosphere. During the climactic game, we are shown blacks and whites cheering as one. How accurate is this? (The South African rugby union, even after the World Cup, was not hospitable to black betterment.) The title of the film comes from the 1875 William Ernest Henley verse, a mainstay of Mandela’s while in prison, that ends with the lines “I am the master of my fate:/ I am the captain of my soul.” The word “invictus” is Latin for “unconquered,” and, in his own slyly understated way, Eastwood milks the sentiment for all its worth.
Compared with much of Eastwood’s previous work as a director, “Invictus” feels impersonal. It’s the work of a filmmaker who wants to win an Oscar real bad – except, of course, Eastwood has already won several. Perhaps the blandness of this film can be explained by the fact that, as a filmmaker, and especially as an actor, Eastwood came of age in the 1960s when Hollywood routinely churned out Great Man movies and biblical epics. “Invictus” is his tribute to Mandela, but it’s also an homage, of sorts, to the movies that were considered high-class back then.
Freeman is a great actor, but he’s stymied here. More than just a dead-on impersonation but something less than a flesh-and-blood portrayal, his Mandela is cocooned in piety. He may be divorced and have fallen out with his children, but his sadness and regret over those failings only serve to burnish his halo. Although he has far less screen time, Damon is in some ways more impressive than Freeman simply because he’s playing a character who stands for nothing except himself – although the filmmakers try to weigh him down with “significance” anyway, as in the scene where Pienaar, visiting the prison where Mandela was locked away, summons the lines from Henley’s poem.
It is entirely befitting to be in awe of Nelson Mandela, but the state of being awestruck is appropriate to the mind-set of a hagiographer, not an artist. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for brief strong language.)