Field of dreams
Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela in odd mixture of sports movie and South African biopic
The surprise here isn’t that Morgan Freeman acquits himself remarkably as Nelson Mandela, but that it has taken Hollywood so long to casting the man as the iconic figure, a role most would agree he was born to play. Unfortunately, with the workman Clint Eastwood at the helm, saddled with a script that often relies on Afterschool Special moments to convey certain aspects to the subtlety-impaired, Invictus never rises to the challenge of matching the potential of Freeman’s casting.
After an obligatory newsreel montage to carry Mandela from his jail cell to taking his seat as the newly elected president of South Africa, we settle down to the crux of the matter: an election isn’t enough, and Mandela needs a way to bridge the seemingly insurmountable divide that separates the country’s blacks from whites after decades of apartheid. Soon enough, it is brought to his attention that, like the nation itself, its representatives on the field of rugby have an image problem. Not that the Springboks aren’t very good—they aren’t, and that’s bad enough—but that the only people who seem to take pride in the team are the white Afrikaners. The blacks of the nation view the team as an ugly reminder of the past, and tend to root for whatever other team is slated to wipe the field with them.
So, Mandela calls in the team captain (Matt Damon) and sets him down for a spot of tea and aphorism spouting. Mandela’s drift is that if the Springboks can get their act together and conduct themselves as a threat on the international stage, it would be just the unifying force that South Africa needs to draw the nation together. Which is pretty much a swell idea, because it’s easier (and safer) for a populace to obsess over sports than it is to simmer over past resentments, ingrained racism and grinding poverty (much like the approach of the film itself). The main hurdle is that the team isn’t all that good, and they need to be World Cup material in order for the plan to work. The Springboks’ captain is impressed, of course, by Mandela’s moxie and sets about bringing his team together to be major players, but he has only a year to do it. Or, in film time, two hours.
Invictus is not a bad movie. Not by any means. But at heart it is just another sports movie with all the tropes and expected moments in place. And even though it’s a sports movie geared up with deep-meaning trappings, the last half-hour is nonetheless reserved for playing out the Big Game.
And as with most any sports movie, there’s never even a slight suspicion that in the final moments the Springboks are gonna get their asses handed to them on a platter. Still, within the conventions of the drama Eastwood manages to insert a couple moments of wry suspense, even if they ultimately play out as bits of misdirection that piggyback on socio-political cynicism.
Ultimately, while Invictus plays out well as a better-than-average sports movie, there is still a certain amount of shallowness to the proceedings, as if made for people who need their messages spelled out for them. It’s compelling and at times moving, but never really enlightening. Using apartheid as a vehicle to arrive at the Big Game, it never really conveys the true nature of the times to anyone born after the ’80s. Which is a shame, because it reduces same to just a game. Which works as a metaphor, but doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of casting Freeman as Mandela.