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Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Morgan Freeman seemed fated to play Nelson Mandela. Finally, Freeman’s irritating penchant for slow-speaking, wise-old-man characters could be applied to a legitimate—and likable—wise old man, and one whom he resembles, too. It’s unfortunate, then, that his chance to showboat as the South African leader came in Invictus, Clint Eastwood’s film about Mandela and…rugby.
There is, at least, legitimate history behind the story. Set in 1995, the film portrays the early months of Mandela’s presidency, a time during which apartheid was no longer legal in South Africa but deep-seated anger lingered. Mandela realized that no amount of speechifying about a “rainbow nation” would move his constituents to hold hands and sing in perfect harmony, so he aimed high by looking low: If the country could collectively support its rugby team, the South Africa Springboks, maybe they’d eventually support a new way of life, too.
One wrench in the plan was that the nearly all-white Springboks symbolized oppression to black citizens. Another, and not all that less significant, was that the team sucked. It couldn’t even win a regular-season game, much less the World Cup, which is what Mandela had his eye on. So he reached out to the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). Francois was so flabbergasted by his invitation to have tea with the president that he naturally promised to do his best to lift his team from the basement—an endeavor that largely consisted of silencing the players’ moaning, whether over the most recent loss (cue inspirational locker-room speech) or the task of holding rugby camps for kids (cue inspirational scene of poor-but-happy tykes playing on a dirt field).
Eastwood has mined racial relations before (last year’s excellent Gran Torino), but Invictus feels like an unusually pedestrian project for him. Subtract the involvement of a historic figure and it’s just another sports flick, part Bad News Bears and part Blind Side with its no-they-can’t-oh-yes-they-did arc and more-than-a-game angle. (The script was adapted by Sherlock Holmes writer Anthony Peckham from a John Carlin book.) It’s often visually heavy-handed, most egregiously in an opening scene in which the motorcade of the just-released Mandela drives down a road on which white children play on one side and black children on another. Musically, it’s worse, with two treacly songs by a South African group named Overtone pouring on the syrup (and one of them, “Colorblind,” pretty much spelling out the plot, beginning with the lyric “It’s not just a game…”). The film’s rather uncommercial title, meanwhile, is Latin for “unconquered” and comes from an 1875 poem (“I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul”) that the real Mandela says helped him through his imprisonment.
The blond- and buffed-out Damon is serviceable here, but really, Francois could have been played by a lesser name with the same result. Freeman, delivering his lines in a gentle, slightly halting manner, is perfectly cast, but the converging of actor and icon only leaves you wanting more Mandela: There are only glancing mentions of his estranged family, for instance, or any of his other achievements. Essentially, he’s reduced to playing a really high-profile cheerleader. Mandela’s staff, too, are around mostly to shake their heads and smile with mild exasperation.
And the big game? An approximately half-hour yawn that’s not terribly suspenseful, exciting, or, considering the sport, even aggressive. After an earlier match, one of Mandela’s stoic bodyguards informs his partner, “We won.” The response is a flat, “We did?” The film as a whole elicits about the same level of enthusiasm.