In Theaters: Invictus

Movieline Score: 5

Well it's December, kids, time to belly up to the box office and let old Uncle Clint give you a tingle. With Invictus, this year he's packing a story of redemption and reconciliation, South African-style. It features an unassailably heroic elder statesman, his unlikely young aide-de-camp, lots of athletic hoo-ha and a terrifically loaded socio-historical context winnowed within a millimeter of credulity. Morgan Freeman worked for years on an adaptation of Nelson Mandela's autobiography but eventually abandoned the project: it was simply too much story, too much history, to fit into a feature film. By choosing Clint Eastwood to adapt a more self-contained episode from Mandela's life -- the alliance he built with South Africa's rugby team as president in 1995, an elaborate campaign to win the World Cup that he felt would help unify a broken country -- Freeman let go of his attachment to a comprehensive portrait. Indeed, a product of his ruthless narrative efficiency is Eastwood's useful (and often very successful) habit of sacrificing story for sentiment.

After a quick, newsreel-style run through Mandela's release from prison in 1990 after 27 years served for his anti-apartheid activity and subsequent rise to the presidency of South Africa, Mandela (played by Freeman) makes his first rousing speech to an office full of confused white people. Fleeting reference is made to those who would quit rather than work for a black man, but Mandela makes it clear that all are welcome to stay -- that his mandate is reconciliation, not revenge. The more interesting flip-side of this strategy is Mandela's notion of using forgiveness as a weapon, disarming those who hate on instinct by wiping the slate clean. It was his most extraordinary gift to his country, and Freeman manages to capture both the charm and the canny that sustained this strange creature through incarceration and brought a wary populace, if briefly, to a level of unity it had never experienced.


The only up-close notion we get of the country's vicious disunity is via Mandela's security detail. Initially an all-black unit, they are forced to work with an all-white group who are more experienced and have cooler sunglasses. An early scene of the two factions butting heads -- it's actually the blacks complaining and the whites standing around looking smug -- is stilted and unnatural, and not in any useful way. Eastwood's reportedly high-octane shooting style often results in scenes that look like they could have used a couple of extra takes. He's more successful at setting up tension around the president's safety; a cup is chucked in his direction at an early rugby game, and at his every appearance thereafter the threat of assassination looms ominously.

Mandela affects oblivion, and very well, although "he sees everything," as his lead agent points out. What he picks up on at that first rugby game he attends, is that the Springboks, South Africa's flailing rugby team, are an apt symbol for the country's sickness. Worshiped by Afrikaners and loathed by black South Africans, the green and gold team colors are worn proudly by the former but would get the latter's ass whipped on the street. In the stroke of PR brilliance, Mandela asks the team's captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to lead his team to victory at the World Cup. Amazingly, Pienaar manages to do just that.

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  • Tina says:

    I am anxious to see this movie, having enjoyed the book. However, since I am in a country that contains more than a dozen actual rugby fans, I will of course not be able to see it until February.
    (Also, I would like to thank you for using "affects" correctly, unlike everyone else on the whole damned internet).

  • Martin James says:

    Oh dear! A film from the USA featuring rugby union. Can it possibly avoid cringe-making misunderstandings and cultural faux pas?
    Not on the form of the above review, anyway. The "Maori warrior routine" is, of course, the Haka, performed not only by the All Blacks, but by other Polynesian nations before every game. It is familar to, and well loved by, all followers of both rugby union and rugby league.
    A fake Afrikaaner accent will undoubtedly be cringe-making, as Hollywood's attempts at Scots, Welsh and Irish accents have always been.
    Will we see actors from the USA attempting to look like rugby players in training etc? Why not use Afrikaaner actors who not only have authentic accents but could show credible ball skills as well, even if only remembered from schooldays.
    The South African rugby union team was not so much "flailing" when apartheid ended as just 30 years behind the times. They are one of the strongest rugby nations in the world, it was simply that their game had not developed as it had elsewhere and they needed to catch up technically and tactically with the modern game.
    Finally, and so the reviewer and people in the USA know, some of the world's greatest players (such as Brian Habana) are now non-white South Africans. Their head coach isn't a white man, either. Rugby union was never a white preserve in South Africa. It was just that non-white people were kept out of the "official" game and the international team.

  • Jim says:

    I just saw this last night, and I am still unconvinced that Eastwood is a consistently great director. Some act as though he is always a sure thing come awards season, but does he really deserve it? This movie was missing something. I was bored and found myself wondering why so much time was spent focusing on the awful CGI crowd. If your movie has a weakness, don't keep showing it to me!

  • Michel Manza says:

    Hmmm, I thought that rehearsal dinners were for the wedding party and immediate family - 200 people at $1,000 each?