In his last 2 films, Clint Eastwood addressed the challenges one person faced against a corrupt, established system in the Changeling, and in Gran Torino, took on racism head on with himself starring in the lead role. With Invictus, I felt that it combined his last two films into one, with another veteran actor Morgan Freeman stepping into an historical role as Nelson Mandela, at a time just after being elected and faced with a deeply divided society across racial lines. This is not your usual run-of-the-mill biopic, and you can trust the award winning filmmaker to weave yet another wonderful, engaging film.
Set in a time just after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and elected President of a post-apartheid South Africa still fresh from its racial, divisive wounds, the story based upon John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Changed a Nation, traces the parallels in the challenges that Mandela had in governing a new country whose citizens still harbour deep, resentful mistrust against those of a different skin colour, with that against South Africa's national rugby team, known as the Springboks, in their uphill quest for World Cup glory, having initially been written off as no-hopers in the tournament.
We all know how sports can bring people of all races, class and all strata of society together, galvanized behind a winning team and celebrating victories as a nation. In fact, we've seen it for ourselves in our early days of nationhood, with Kallang being the battleground in which folks come together to cheer our football team on, regardless of race, language and religion. The same can be said here, where Mandela, with so much on his plate, chose to put some focus on the Springboks in their World Cup journey, knowing that his plan, trivial though crazy as it may seem at first, had all the foresight in knowing that reconciliation as a nation is within reach. All that's needed is for team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to believe he and his team can deliver.
Part of what contributed to this masterpiece is that the lead actors Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon both disappear into their roles. I've said enough thus far that Morgan Freeman remains one of my favourite character actors, though his role as this historical political figure, takes the cake. He took great pains to study the mannerisms of the man he's portraying and the result is magnificent, with what I've garnered from news reels on even his speech patterns gotten right down to a pat. As a man who walks the talk, we see this through the appointment of his security detail, as well as how he engages his back office team to look beyond skin colour, and to focus on ability instead, to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. This cinematic Mandela is as great an orator as the current US President, though at times when Eastwood tries a little too hard to force the messages of peace and forgiveness through, the speeches, monologues or dialogues do seem a tad heavy handed.
Audiences would likely be more familiar with Matt Damon's action role as Jason Bourne, though he has proven his acting chops through the Ocean Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen series, and his weight gain to play The Informant!. Here he converts those fats into muscle mass to play rugby player Pienaar, though he had to rely on camera tricks and angles to make him look a lot bigger than he actually is. With his hair dyed blonde and new found bulk, he does look believable as he is charismatic in trying to also walk what Mandela has talked to him about, with responsibilities on the pitch to galvanize a team into believing they've got a shot at the largest trophy of their sport.
For all the economical minimalist that Clint Eastwood is reputedly touted for in his films, when it comes to the crunch he too does demonstrate that he's up to the mark in delivering epics based on history, such as his WWII magnum opus seen from both warring perspectives. A remarkable thing here about the film is that there's not a single, actual archived footage that was used (as far as I can tell), save some static photos in the end credits. Everything got recreated, right down to the exhilarating rugby games against the English, West Samoans, French and the famed New Zealand All Blacks (Check out that Jonah Lomu lookalike, and that Haka!) and the way Rugby got shot here will leave a fine impression on you, if not turn you into a fan of the game in the shortest time possible.
But what was real, was a powerful scene which was set in the actual cell that Mandela was incarcerated for years, where if I were to be put inside that same cell, I'd probably go insane given its bareness, as well as not being able to gaze outside and smell fresh air, unless to perform hard labour. It's an emotional sequence and one that will allow you to appreciate just how magnanimous Mandela was when he got released, versus the very human trait of wanting to seek revenge for injustice done against oneself.
Language wise, it may be a little difficult to listen to the South African accented English at times, but don't let that turn you off. It's another World Cup this year, football's that is, which will be held in South Africa, but before that swings by in Summer, make time for Invictus, and you'll be rewarded with yet another fine film from a director whose craft ages like fine wine, with masterful performances and an engaging storyline. Highly recommended!