Clint Eastwood triumphs again with “Invictus” 1

★★★½

When Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa in 1994, he was confronted with what must have seemed like an impossible problem. How do you completely remake a country that has long been divided by Apartheid? As one news broadcaster puts it simply, "How can he balance white fears with black aspirations?"

The clear answer is, of course, by supporting the rugby team.

"Invictus," Clint Eastwood’s involving and moving historical epic, focuses on Mandela’s first year in office and his strong support of the South African rugby team (The Springboks) in the build-up to, and during the 1995 World Cup that was held in South Africa. While the film never suggests that the World Cup healed all the wounds the country suffered under Apartheid, it does point to it as the moment when black and white South Africa become one united nation.

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon
Written by:Anthony Peckham
Rated:PG-13

Eastwood wisely does not try to show every injustice and harsh reality that apartheid created — he is counting on the audience to know many of the basics. Instead he works with broad strokes. From shots of black children playing soccer on a patch of dirt while across the street white kids play on a beautifully manicured pitch, to scenes of Mandela’s black and white bodyguards slowly learning to trust each other — it is simple but effective filmmaking.

For the most part "Invictus" keeps the focus on Mandela, and Morgan Freeman is excellent, easily embodying the kindness and grace. Walking slightly stooped over and with a hitch in his step, Freeman captures the physical toll of 27 years spent in prison doing hard labor during the day and sleeping on a pallet at night. Those physical signs make Mandela’s willingness to forgive those who put him in jail even more moving and yet Freeman never lets the role move towards sainthood. He gives Mandela just enough quirkiness and humor to keep him human and relatable.

Freeman in ably backed up by Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, the captain of the Springboks. Damon, looking buff and speaking with an impeccable South African accent, keeps Pienaar’s nobility from slipping into earnestness and beautifully depicts the almost overwhelming admiration that Pienaar feels for Mandela.

Of course everything builds up to a big final match and it does not disappoint. Taking up nearly 15 minutes of the film’s running time, the match is beautifully done. Eastwood uses every trick in the book from hand-held cameras to put us in the mix with the players on the field and in the scrums to sweeping shots of cheering crowds. It is a stunning bit of movie making.

"Invictus" is a straightforward story told extremely well that practically demands that you become emotionally involved. At an extremely youthful 79, Clint Eastwood is proving to be one of the most sensitive directors working. His passion for his material is always evident and you cannot help but be involved by it. So much so, that you will probably forget that Eastwood never stopped to explain the rules of rugby.