This is the true story of the 1995 World Cup and the South African charge to win the cup with the tournament being hosted on its own turf. On a much bigger level, it is the story of a country in turmoil as Mandela steps into the presidency as South Africa deals with the end of the long-standing apartheid. Eastwood tries to find that delicate balance between the two and does find a solid middle ground to work with. It has the ability to be a large scale story in telling a story about South Africa and its 40-million plus residents, but Eastwood grounds the film thanks to two key performances, both nominated for Academy Awards.
Following his release from prison after serving 27 years, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) goes about trying to fix the problems facing South Africa, eventually winning the 1994 presidential race and becoming the first president to be elected in a democratic election. His country is facing a long list of problems, some involving crime, the economy and violence and crime while others can be attributed to the hatred between black and white. Mandela sees potential to bring the country together again, to unite them as one people, through the national rugby team, the Springboks, captained by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). Mandela turns to Pienaar in hopes of motivating the team to do the best they can. The team captain leads his team on one of the most improbable World Cup runs ever as the country watches.
To say Invictus is a rugby movie isn't exactly accurate. To say it's just a sports movie is limiting. Rugby is the means to an end for Mandela, but in reality it could have been any sport. Eastwood doesn't even focus much on the actual rugby matches. I had little to no knowledge of the game, but that doesn't hurt in the scenes in '94's pool play and then the knockout games. It's easy to follow and certainly keeps you interested. I noticed the music throughout, but the soundtrack during the game action is especially strong. The final match against New Zealand is likewise a strong sequence if a little heavy on slow-motion.
Both Freeman and Damon were nominated for their performances and rightfully so. Neither won -- damn you Jeff Bridges and Christoph Waltz! -- but that doesn't take away from the strength of their performances. Nothing was done to Freeman physically other than his hair to look like Mandela, but at certain moments, usually the quiet moments where the president is alone, he is the spitting image of Mandela. The man is basically a modern day Ghandi so you're treading on thin ice, but Freeman is fantastic in the part, giving Mandela a personality, a livelihood, a charm and likability that rings true as to what he's really like. Damon bulked up in a big way to play a rugby player and still looks a little on the small side, but his part is a really solid one in a long line. These two actors dominate the movie and end up carrying it from start to finish.
As mentioned before, Invictus is about more than just a country trying to win the rugby World Cup. It's about a new president trying to unite his country after years of strife and fighting, most of it racially based. Eastwood provides a handful of moments that show this reuniting taking place, one of the high points being the Springboks visiting a poor region to teach little kids how to play rugby. Another plot running through the movie is the relationship among Mandela's bodyguards, one black contingent and one white, forced to work together to protect their president. Tony Kgoroge plays Jason Tshabalala, the leader of the black guards, while Julian Lewis Jones plays Etienne Feyder, the leader of the white guards. Over the years, their relationship develops from a pure hatred to a respect to a comfort level and possibly even friends. It is those quieter, softer moments that make the movie a little more special.
Invictus <----trailer (2009): *** 1/2 /****