There’s always a moment in a Clint Eastwood-directed film, or maybe two or three, where you become uneasy, not certain he’ll manage not to cross the line that separates earnest from corny. Think back at the hospital scenes in “Million-Dollar Baby,” at the grudging friendship developing between a bigoted old white man and his Asian neighbors in “Gran Torino” and so forth. “Invictus,” unfortunately, does cross that line more than once as it begs for soaring rhetoric, feel-good banality about the power of the will, overcoming odds, and underdog becoming top dog.
Nelson Mandela’s story is indeed one of the great events such as the fall of communism or the reunification of Germany that we have witnessed, disbelieving our own eyes, over the last decades. Going from a twenty-seven year-stint in prison in apartheid-stricken South Africa to become the country’s first President and the most deserving Nobel Peace Prize winner ever, the man is a legend and an inspiration to all.
To expect a restrained portrayal would be asking too much from Eastwood. The director bases the film on a book by John Carlin that describes how the South African President made reconciliation between township blacks and Afrikaner whites the core of his governing principle by urging to victory a third-rate rugby team, the Springboks, much beloved by whites. The unlikely friendship between Mandela and the captain of the team, Francois Pienaar, whom the President urges to lead his men to greatness, is a metaphor for what was taking place in the country at large: first grudgingly learning to forget the past and come together as a people and then actually starting to work together toward a common goal—in this case winning the Rugby World Cup.
Clint Eastwood more or less manages to overcome our reluctance and draw us in. The film is a tour de force with two fine performances by Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as the rugby team captain. The cinematography is impressive throughout, be it the killer rugby games or the misery of townships. To encourage Pienaar, President Mandela copies out for him the poem by William Ernest Henley that sustained him during his captivity, “Invictus” (Latin for “unconquered”), which ends with the much rehashed lines “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.” Enough said.