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12.09.09

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Phaedra

Photograph by Keith Bernstein
UNITERS: Morgan Freeman's Mandela and Matt Damon's rugger strike a blow for reconciliation in 'Invictus.'

Field of Dreamers

Morgan Freeman's Nelson Mandela and rugby star Matt Damon try to heal a nation in 'Invictus'

By Richard von Busack


THE TUNNEL-VISION sports movie par excellence, Invictus (a title based on Timothy McVeigh's favorite poem) tells us that South Africa was healed of its racial divisions by the Rugby world cup of 1995. Invictus is not inept. Whatever you can say about his repetitiveness and his willingness to grind corn, Clint Eastwood knows how to focus our attention where he thinks it belongs and how to underscore a private moment without dialogue. This is called "craftsmanship." It's also called craftsmanship when it's in a TV commercial, and that's what you think of in a series of dialogue-free scenes where an African boy gathering aluminum cans befriends a pair of white cops.

But Eastwood doesn't take his audience for granted; he knows we have eyes. We can pick out the fact that the 1995 South African Springboks rugby team has only one black member, that the game of rugby was, in the early days of Nelson Mandela's presidency, a sport favored by the white Afrikaaners and mostly ignored by the African majority. Eastwood stocks his screen with the kind of faces and bodies that let that hatred of the blacks seep into us.

Based on John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy, Invictus contrasts Mandela's heroism after 27 years in federal police custody with the divisions in the country he led. With an eye on unity (and being a former rugger himself) Mandela exhorted the South African team to greatness in the quadrennial championship. Invictus drills down the insistence that this one game brought the nation together.

As Mandela, Morgan Freeman gives us noble, cautious acting; it's obvious Freeman could do the role in his sleep. It's the kind of part where someone says of Mandela "He's not a saint!" because this conception of Mandela is such a saint. Matt Damon's performance as the Springboks' team captain, Francois Pienaar, is a tribute to Damon's plasticity. It's not much of a part, but Damon makes it a model of recessive, intelligent interpretation. And Pienaar is physically exactly the opposite of who Damon was in The Informant! Unfortunately, the role doesn't offer much; Pienaar picks up greatness from Mandela's strength of character by a tour of the great man's prison cell.

Rugby is not a game made for screen poetry, and the dog piles and all-but-drag-out fights on the field have no shape to them. Screenwriter Anthony Peckham is clever to stress the nickname of the Springboks' opponents in the World Cup—the "All Blacks"—to make the New Zealanders sound like black-clad villains and to beguile the tragically America-centric viewer who can't see the epochal drama in a contest between South Africa and the Kiwis.

Invictus stresses Mandela's regime as "balancing black aspirations with white fears." So I suppose if Invictus has particular relevance, it's as a message to the Obama presidency. The film counsels triangulation, mildness and reconciliation with the enemies of the kind of pluralism both politicians represent. One is less in a mood to receive that message when one considers not just the state of the United States in general but of South Africa in particular, which, despite the great rugby match, is still solidly in a world of hurt.


Movie Times INVICTUS (PG-13; 124 min.), directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Anthony Peckham, based on the book by John Carlin, photographed by Tom Stern and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, opens Friday countywide.


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