"Invictus" achieves its goal without digging deep
By Kirk Honeycutt
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Nothing speaks so dramatically about Clint Eastwood's recent and remarkable burst of creativity as a director of awards-worthy films than the appearance of "Invictus," a historical drama that few if any filmmakers could have launched within the studio system. Here is a movie about Nelson Mandela, South Africa after apartheid and, of all things, the sport of rugby. None is high on any list of topics that studio suits crave, which tend more toward vampires and superheroes. Even the title -- that of a Victoria-era poem -- is obscure.
When Warner Bros. releases it December 11 during a storm of year-end Oscar contenders, "Invictus" will pull its audience from adventurous, older moviegoers. Even the presence of Matt Damon, along with Morgan Freeman, will bring in only a small number of younger people. But for those who do buy tickets, it will be a pleasure for them to encounter a movie that's actually about something.
The downside here is a certain trepidation on the filmmakers' part to dig very deeply into what is still a politically sensitive situation. Then too, the real-life protagonists are very much alive and one an iconic figure. That's always a problem for any film that wants to deal with such personalities as flesh-and-blood characters.
The opening scene brilliantly sets the stage. Released from prison on February 11, 1990, after 27 years, Mandela (Freeman) travels in a motorcade that passes between two fenced sports fields. On one, white youths in spiffy uniforms play rugby. On the other, black kids kick a soccer ball. The black kids rush to the fence while the white kids' coach tells his charges to mark the day when their country went to the dogs.
At once, Eastwood and screenwriter Anthony Peckham deliver a metaphor for a nation divided along racial lines and a hint that sports will be one of Mandela's strategies for bringing South Africans together.
Four years later, Mandela is the country's first black president. Many white citizens fear black rule just as many black citizens look to Mandela for revenge. It's a prescription for social instability and political disaster.
Mandela hits upon an ambitious plan to use the national rugby team, the Springboks -- long an embodiment of white-supremacist rule -- to grip the new South Africa as the team prepares to host the 1995 World Cup. So he begins to woo its Afrikaner captain, Francois Pienaar (Damon), to his cause.
In the beginning, the Springboks are portrayed as the rugby equivalent of the Bad News Bears. But a string of improbable wins brings them to the finals against a New Zealand team that is an overwhelming favorite. Continued...