From Milk to Mandela: one year after Gus Van Sant’s biopic of an assassination foretold, Clint Eastwood’s new film depicts a charismatic, steadfast black pioneer pushing past treacherous rifts and governing with a grand teachable moment. Harnessing the genuine uplift of an effective sports movie, Invictus recounts how South African president Nelson Mandela kind of did the same thing in real life in 1995 by supporting the national rugby team, a symbol of Afrikaaner culture under apartheid. With Morgan Freeman mimicking the sainted leader and a musclebound Matt Damon as the team captain, it’s a film, like Milk, concerned with political inspiration and leading by example, avoiding divisive detail and pragmatically drumming up hope.
Adapting the book Playing the Enemy, Eastwood presents Mandela—released from prison to Afrikaaner muttering and soon elected president—as he seizes upon the unifying potential of the rugby team’s World Cup bid, while also making basic gestures like retaining apartheid-era employees and white bodyguards and seeking out international business. After the vigilante martyrdom of Gran Torino—quietly one of 2009’s top-grossing films—the filmmaker goes for a vision of peaceful promise. Freeman embodies the patient bearing and sly sagacity of a leader who at the time (based upon my meager recollections from travels there the same year) kept astonishing South Africans by not taking vengeance (and thereby offering an alternate road map to Zimbabwe’s changeover). At its best, the film achieves a Fordian simplicity and cross-cuts with illustrative side dramas—e.g., his mixed security team learning to work (and by extension live) together—that support the main event: the rugby team, under open-minded Francois Pienaar (Damon), instilling a sense of possibility, self-respect, and reforged identity.
Showing an earlier South Africa readying to show its face to the world again, Invictus joins a spate of SA-set films that are unstuck in time—as if reflecting a country now a bit weary from past events and more pessimistic than in the heady days of this film’s setting. The recent adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace works off a 1999 novel that was at the time a bit of a slap in that face but seems less so now; District 9 projects a future separate-and-unequal mess involving refugee aliens and thereby leaps past sober stock-taking straight to (Peter) Jacksonian B-movie excess. What with these two, The Bang Bang Club, Skin, and a forthcoming Winnie Mandela biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, it’s the biggest bump of releases here since the 80s pre-unity era of A Dry White Season, Cry Freedom and, lest we forget, Lethal Weapon 2. (Morgan Freeman’s sole directorial credit, Bopha!, followed in 1993, and then Mandela himself turned up at the head of a Soweto classroom in Malcolm X.)
Invictus, with its parallels, has the feel of a ghost from Christmas past and future: the can-do drive it recounts evokes what a so-called era of Obama could look like in retrospect (complete with anxieties about assassination). Its narrative construction makes it feel different from most any Eastwood film, as does the one-minute-plus total of slo-mo during the climactic final between South Africa’s Springboks and New Zealand. But it caps Eastwood’s often breathtaking decade of playing out a brinksmanship with civilization’s promise—tacking between heart-filling hope and hope-curdling ugliness, sometimes within the same movies, from Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, through his World War II diptych and Changeling’s disillusionment. Invictus runs us through the glory of it all only to leave the question: what happens next?
Opens December 11