Clint Eastwood, in the twilight of an amazing career, continues to gratify audiences looking for fine adult drama.
Invictus, which stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, may not have the word-of-mouth of his appealing, surprise hit Gran Torino, but the reliable filmmaker and occasional actor knows how to illuminate a story with simplicity and grace. Even surrounding a sport (part soccer, part football) not widely known around the world.
The film tells the inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela (Freeman, also a producer) joined forces with the captain, Francois Pienaar (Damon), of South Africa's rugby squad, the Springboks, to help unite their country.
Newly elected President Mandela, after 27 years behind bars, recognizes a nation tattered economically and racially since the collapse of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies this underdog national team as they make an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.
The filmmaking and narrative by Anthony Peckham has a straightforward, assured quality not trying to be mostly a Mandela biopic. The relationship of Mandela and Pienaar is laid out well though Freeman and Damon really don't have much screentime together. They feed off of one another's gestures through the importance of making an unsuccessful team vital for the country through victory at such an estimable global competition.
Freeman and Eastwood, especially after a film like Million Dollar Baby, seem an ideal fit, as the stately actor of films like The Dark Knight and The Bucket List has eyed the role for some time. With Mandela's personal life like its country needing a rippling message, the anointed figure took on the politics with prescient determination. Freeman, without relying on easy impersonation, lets us into the foibles of a self-conscious, savvy man who isn't as much of a saint as many may perceive. And, a muscular Damon, less beefy than The Informant!, make Francois into a driven Rugby captain and a strong example for his teammates.
As in Gran Torino or even in his latter perceptive war dramas like Letters from Iwo Jima the idea of realizing a decision for the better against overwhelming prejudice and suspicions can be almost like its title, which from its Latin origin, translates as unconquerable. What Eastwood does really well in this respect that has some insight and wit concerns the detail in Mandela's security which dovetails the cultural holism to the subject matter. And, Tony Kgoroge etches out quite the charming figure as Mandela's black head of security which would adopt some of those in the earlier apartheid administration.
In Invictus the cast and crew, especially editor Joel Cox, lenser Tom Stern (both Eastwood regulars), and son Kyle providing the music, help their boss make this middlebrow entertainment pleasurably understated and spare. With the right focus and without being maudlin in a way to prod a viewer, something this unsuspenseful, unbloated, and unsubtle is moral virtue in the form of a triumphant kick.