Final Score: Future 1, Past 0
It may not seem obvious at first, but Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus,” a rousing true story of athletic triumph, is also that director’s latest exploration of revenge, the defining theme of his career. It is hard to think of an actor or a filmmaker who so cleanly embodies a single human impulse in the way that Mr. Eastwood — from “Pale Rider” to“Mystic River,” from Dirty Harry to “Gran Torino” — personifies the urge to get even.
He has also, of course, taken a critical view of the drive for vengeance, investigating its tragic roots and terrible consequences. A movie like “Unforgiven,” most famously, suggests that violent revenge is regrettable. But rarely, in the world of Mr. Eastwood’s films, is it avoidable.
“Invictus” is to some degree an exception, a movie about reconciliation and forgiveness — about the opposite of revenge — that gains moral authority precisely because the possibility of bloodshed casts its shadow everywhere. The film, based on John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy,” takes place in South Africa in the mid-1990s, just after Nelson Mandela’s election as the country’s first black president. Many of the whites in the film — most of them Afrikaner nationalists still attached to a system that kept their black compatriots poor, disenfranchised and oppressed — brace themselves for payback as Mandela assumes power. Quite a few of the president’s black supporters expect it, too, as their due after decades of brutality and humiliation under apartheid.
But Mandela, played with gravity, grace and a crucial spark of mischief by Morgan Freeman, knows that score-settling would be a disastrous course for a new and fragile democracy. Passing by a newsstand on the morning after his victory, he spots a headline in Afrikaans. He has shown that he can win an election, it says, but will he show that he can govern? His bodyguards bristle at a pre-emptive low blow from a hostile press, but Mandela shrugs. “It’s a fair question,” he says.
And a perennially urgent one in any democracy. Mr. Eastwood and the screenwriter, Anthony Peckham, are too absorbed in the details of the story at hand to suggest historical analogies, but “Invictus” has implications beyond its immediate time and place that are hard to miss. It’s an exciting sports movie, an inspiring tale of prejudice overcome and, above all, a fascinating study of political leadership.
But much of the ingenuity in Mr. Freeman’s performance lies in the way he conveys that idealism and the shrewd manipulation of symbols and emotions are not incompatible, but complementary. Taking power a few years after being released from 27 years of incarceration, Mandela is already a larger-than-life figure, an idol in South Africa and around the world. His celebrity is something of a burden, and also an asset he must learn to use; his moral prestige is a political weapon.
But he is preoccupied, to the dismay of loyalists in his movement, with finding some kind of concord — not friendship, necessarily, but at least a state of non-enmity — with the people who hate and fear him: the whites who see him as a terrorist, a usurper and a threat to their traditions and values. Mandela’s overtures to the Afrikaners — starting with his refusal to dismiss white members of the presidential staff and security detail — arise partly out of Gandhian principle, and partly out of political calculation. They are a powerful force in the army, the police and the South African economy.
Mandela’s aides — in particular Brenda Mazibuko (Adjoa Andoh) — are baffled when he takes up the cause of the South African rugby team, a symbol of stiff-necked Afrikaner pride despised by most blacks. The team’s Springbok mascot, named for a kind of gazelle, and its green-and-gold uniforms are nearly as loathsome as the apartheid flag, and when Mandela insists that the colors be retained, it seems almost like a betrayal of his life’s cause. South Africa, a pariah in the world of international sports for a long time (“the skunk of the world,” as Mandela puts it), is preparing to host the Rugby World Cup, and Mandela decides that if the nation is to find unity and self-respect the underachieving Springboks must win the championship.
And so an alliance develops between the president and François Pienaar, the Springbok captain, played with crisp, disciplined understatement (and utter mastery of a devilishly tricky accent) by Matt Damon. Pienaar’s struggle to keep control of his team, and also to persuade them to accept some perplexing new social realities, is a microcosm of Mandela’s larger project. And he quietly accepts Mandela, who shares with Pienaar the Victorian poem that gives the movie its title, as a mentor.
Beyond the politician, Mr. Freeman and Mr. Eastwood allow us glimpses of a complicated and somewhat melancholy man, carrying the loneliness of his long imprisonment with him and estranged from much of his family. He is gracious and charming in small groups, a stiff but compelling public speaker and a boss whose authority is buttressed by a phalanx of devoted, sometimes skeptical aides.
But if “Invictus” is predominantly an absorbing character study of one of the most extraordinary characters of our time, it is also fleshed out with well-sketched minor players and subplots that illuminate the progress of racial rapprochement in its comic human dimension. The black bodyguards and their white colleagues proceed from hostility to wary tolerance to guarded warmth in a way that is pointed without being overstated. And that, for the most part, characterizes Mr. Eastwood’s direction, which is always unassuming, unhurried and efficient. In this film he tells a big story through a series of small, well-observed moments, and tells it in his usual blunt, matter-of-fact way, letting the nuances take care of themselves.
And once again, as in “Letters From Iwo Jima” — a tragic rather than heroic inquiry into the nature of leadership — they do. “Invictus” is more sprawling than that film, and more willing to risk hokiness. That is a chance Mr. Eastwood is often happy to take, and no genre is more susceptible to it (or earns it more honestly) than the victorious-underdog team-sports movie. That the sport is as alien to most Americans as it is to black South Africans presents its challenges, but by the end you might care about rugby more than you thought you would, even if it remains harder to understand than politics.
The convergence of the two provides an occasion for some potent, intelligent filmmaking — a movie that hits you squarely with its visceral impact and stays in your mind for a long time after.
“Invictus” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has some swearing, the threat of violence and brutal sports action.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Anthony Peckham, based on the book “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens; production designer, James J. Murakami; produced by Mr. Eastwood, Lori McCreary, Robert Lorenz and Mace Neufeld; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes. WITH: Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela), Matt Damon (François Pienaar) and Adjoa Andoh (Brenda Mazibuko).