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"From director Clint Eastwood, “Invictus” tells the inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) joined forces with the captain of South Africa’s rugby team, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), to help unite their country. Newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa’s underdog rugby team as they make an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.
Nelson Mandela is, of course, played by Morgan Freeman; it was really just a matter of time. But no matter how obvious a choice Freeman may be, there's no arguing the subtlety, humor, and gentle physicality of his performance. In moments as minor as receiving tea from his house servant, Freeman emits good-natured warmth, but also knowledge of an ugly world -- one the film wisely spends minimum time exploring.
That world is sketched with imagery throughout, beginning with the opening shot of privileged white boys playing rugby while, on the other side of the road, young black children play soccer. It is, for a moment, 1990, and Mandela has been released from prison on Robben Island. Elected president four years later, he preaches forgiveness and mercy but knows that to truly unify his country, he needs a show. Enter the Springboks, South Africa's flailing rugby team led by Pienaar (Matt Damon, buffed-up and superb) who are by their very existence a symbol of apartheid. Over tea, Mandela asks Pienaar to win the title and, by extension, asks for patience and forgiveness from his countrymen.
No acts of violence and very few moments of genuine racism are shown in Invictus, which has led some critics to dismiss it as easy-to-swallow and uncomplicated. Would Eastwood's film been stronger if we had witnessed the termination of Verwoerd or seen the bigots flee in fear of 'impurity'? I doubt it; there are, and will be more, films made about those things. Neither biopic nor civil-rights melodrama, Invictus is a rich study of how wisdom, intellect, and history are often most influential when they come with the price of admission. Athletes, actors, and musicians matter as much to the national identity as our leaders, because they are something to which everyone feels connected. Mandela knew that; Eastwood seems to be in on the secret as well.
Naturally, parallels will be drawn to Obama and his fleet of celebrity supporters. But, ever the class-act, Eastwood never pushes, focusing instead on craft and structure: The director's partnership with the brilliant cinematographer Tom Stern has become, since Blood Work, a thing of stunning elegance. Meanwhile, editors Gary Roach and Joel Cox give the story a sublime fluidity. Working from Anthony Peckham's astute adaptation of John Carlin's book 'Playing the Enemy', Eastwood, like the towering figure at the center of Invictus, restrains personal grievances or motives to rightly invoke balance. In a perfect world, Invictus might have been bifurcated like Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima -- but as the film demonstrates, this world is far from perfect.