There's little doubt that Clint Eastwood is the model for what a studio wants from the director of adult drama. He makes them at a reasonable price, he's fast, movie stars love him, and he exercises restraint in pretty much every decision he makes. He's become one of the most reliable brand-name directors working today. When you go see a Clint Eastwood movie, and it seems like there's always at least two in release, you know what you're going to get.
"Invictus" is a perfect example of that. Working from a very straightforward screenplay by Anthony Peckham, Eastwood tells the story of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) attempting to create a sense of unity in a country that was known worldwide for its deep racial division, reaching out to Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to lead South Africa to a World Cup victory. It's extremely earnest filmmaking, direct and unsubtle, and it absolutely feels like an Eastwood movie. Even with the element of suspense removed (after all, why would they make the film if there was no triumph at the end?), the film works as a solid piece of down-the-middle entertainment. It never hammers at its audience, which would have been incredibly easy to do with material like this. Eastwood's touch is exactly what this subject matter needed, and as a result, he's made another film that's no doubt going to kill at the box-office and push all the right buttons for Oscar voters.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison during the collapse of apartheid, he wasn't so much elected President of South Africa as he was annointed. He was an important figure for his country, and his elevation to leader of the country was a symbol, a message sent by South Africa that they were making a break with the past with an eye on the future. As he stepped up to become the political icon his country needed, his personal life fell to pieces, and he realized that he needed to make grand gestures if he ever hoped to get past decades and decades of cultural conditioning.
That why he turned to Pienaar. As leader of the Springboks, the national Rugby team, Pienaar was in a unique position to make one of those grand gesture. The Springboks were the face of rugby for white South Africa, and most blacks hated the team as a symbol of apartheid. They were also a predominantly losing team when Mandela took power. He reached out Pienaar and asked him to not only turn the team's record around, but also to understand how powerful a victory at the World Cup could be for the country. Mandela knew that a national victory at the Rugby World Cup could unite both white and black fans, and that a moment like that could have a long-lasting ripple effect.
The film's really not any more complicated than that. As a way of dramatizing the difficulties of integration and the pervasive suspicion that was the legacy of the apartheid policies, Peckham's script spends a good deal of time on the security detail assigned to Mandela. He started out with his own men, headed by Jason Tshabalala (Tony Kgoroge), all black, but then added a group of men who had worked for the previous all-white administration. The process by which these men come to trust each other is offered up as a microcosm of the growing pains that the entire country was dealing with, and Kgoroge is a charismatic presence who grounds that entire storyline.
Really, though, the film boils down to one relationship, that between Mandela and Pienaar, and it's interesting how the film manages to make that relationship so important while really only putting the two of them face to face a handful of times during the film's running time, and they don't really have any long or in-depth conversations. It's more the way they react to each other, the way they influence each other, and the way their actions then play out in South Africa as a whole. Damon's fine as Pienaar, although it's a role it feels like he could have played in his sleep. He's a decent guy who looks good on the rugby field and who manages to inspire his fellow players by example. Freeman's Mandela is a savvy performance that doesn't lean on simple impersonation, although there are numerous small details that he gets right. It's more that Freeman's persona, hard-earned over his decades of film work, is a lovely bookend to the image of Mandela that we know from the news. He's not portrayed as a saint, but instead a man who is well aware of just how crucial his conduct is, and who struggles with the difficulty of that every day.
I'm glad it's not a biopic that tries to tell the whole story of Mandela's life, and that it doesn't ladle on the white guilt with both hands. Working with his regular collaborators like cinematographer Tom Stern, editor Joel Cox, and his son Kyle writing the score, Eastwood has focused on one particular story that illuminates just how difficult it can be once a country decides to make a change. The decision can be difficult enough, but then making that change can be near-impossible. For South Africa to have put apartheid behind it, to any extent, is something that seemed unthinkable at one point, and the mere fact that it happened gives me hope that no matter how difficult a problem seems in this or any country, it can be addressed, and with the right people leading, overcome.
"Invictus" opens December 11th.
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