A bridge-building president

Morgan Freeman, superlative as Nelson Mandela; below, Freeman with Matt Damon, who plays rugby team captain Francois Pienaar.
Morgan Freeman, superlative as Nelson Mandela; below, Freeman with Matt Damon, who plays rugby team captain Francois Pienaar.
Posted: December 11, 2009

In 1990 Johannesburg, South Africa, an all-white rugby team practices on the grassy pitch, resplendent in green-and-gold uniforms, the national colors. Across the road on a muddy field, weedy black youths in nondescript shirts kick around a soccer ball.

It is the day, after 27 long years, that Nelson Mandela is released from prison. And as the car carrying him tools down the highway between the two fields, the cheers of the soccer players are drowned out by the jeers of the rugby folk.

Like his Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood's new film, Invictus (Latin for "unconquered"), is about a civic elder seeking creative solutions to the problems of intolerance.

The protagonist of Gran Torino is a crusty widower at first suspicious, then supportive, of his immigrant neighbors. The central figure of Invictus is serene loner Mandela (Morgan Freeman, superlative), in 1995 the newly elected president of South Africa, looking for a means of uniting a nation torn by apartheid, suspicion, and racial hatred.

Mandela's election had created the new South Africa; it was his job to create the new South African. Eastwood's rousing, unapologetically schmaltzy sports inspirational shows us how the statesman seized upon the gladiatorial rites of rugby as a means to achieve this unlikely goal.

It may look like a movie-of-the-week and it certainly has some wincingly bad musical passages, but Invictus is an entertaining movie about a masterful piece of political theater. It sweeps the audience up in Mandela's strategic campaign to get the two sides of the South African chessboard - angry blacks and scared whites - rooting for the same team. And makes us root for them, too.

Invictus takes its title from the 19th-century poem about the man proud to be "the master of my fate, the captain of my soul."

William Ernest Henley's verse sustained Mandela during his long imprisonment for anti-apartheid activism, a period when, like most black South Africans, he hated rugby because it was the rough sport of rougher apartheidists.

In Eastwood's film, based on John Carlin's 2008 book, Playing the Enemy, Mandela handwrites the poem and gives it to Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), captain of Springbok, South Africa's, rugby team, hoping to inspire him.

As always, Freeman is a one-man charm offensive. He doesn't really look like Mandela or speak with the former South African president's clipped musicality. Yet he is Mandela, erect, farsighted, and firm, declining to settle old scores in the hopes of scoring new goals.

(Of Damon's work, which is fine, let us just say that to a one-dimensional role he summons 11/2 dimensions.)

At its heart, Eastwood's movie is a parable of leadership. Whether you're the captain of a nation or of a sports team (or a movie shoot), you have to find a way to include and inspire. By that measure, Invictus is a winner.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 and crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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