If you’re expecting Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus,” about how new South African president Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) used the country’s rugby team as a way to bring the nation together, to be preachy and obvious, the film’s first and last scenes will fulfill your worst fears. Everything in between, however, comes smarter and more moving than you might expect.
That first scene takes place on the historic day when Mandela was released from prison, and two groups of children gather on opposite sides of the street to watch the motorcade go past: Black children playing soccer on a dusty field surrounded by a sagging chain link fence erupt in cheers, while across the street, white kids playing rugby on an immaculate athletic pitch have stony faces as their coach tells them to remember this as the day that South Africa went to the dogs.
There’s nowhere to go but up from an opening that on-the-nose, and “Invictus” works best when it examines Mandela’s political plight after he’s elected president. How does he foster a reconciliation between the nation’s whites, embittered at being taken out of power, and its black population, furious over decades of cruel apartheid? How can he curry favor with the white power base — which still controlled the nation’s banking, police and army — while making both black and white South Africans feel as if they’re both part of the country’s future?
According to “Invictus,” Mandela’s solution was to let the national team, the Springboks, keep their colors, name and logo, despite its symbolism as a relic of the bad old days. (All black South Africans — Mandela included — would root for whatever foreign team was playing against the Springboks during the apartheid years.) The new president also sent the team out to the townships to generate good PR among the soccer-loving black kids.
The problem, of course, is that the Springboks weren’t a very good team, but the film implies that Mandela was able to inspire team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to clean up its act and start winning some games. As a sports movie, “Invictus” delivers on some exciting rugby action, and it deftly demonstrates how athletics can transcend even politics in its impact on a nation.
While I’ll admit to getting swept up at the strangest times — who knew the South African anthem would give me goosebumps? — “Invictus” winds up being another one of those movies where Morgan Freeman walks on water. Not that he doesn’t do it very well, but his saintliness here reminded me why it was so exciting to hear him say “fuck” in “Wanted.” As for Damon, I don’t have the ear to tell you if he manages a convincing South African accent, but what comes out of his mouth is at least consistent throughout the film.
For its sheer sweep and occasional smarts, “Invictus” is worth a look, but by no means should this triumph-of-the-underdog feel-gooder be considered a definitive history of South Africa’s historical transition of power.
Playing a washed-up, boozy country singer is really for actors what hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold roles are for actresses: A bit of show-offy, working-class grime that Oscar voters have been known to eat up with a golden spoon. And so we get Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart,” drinkin’ and pukin’ and singin’ and swearin’ and shootin’ for one last shot at redemption via the love of a good woman (in this case, Maggie Gyllenhaal as a single mom and aspiring journalist).
And it’s not that Bridges isn’t perfectly convincing in the role — he even does his own singing — or that Gyllenhaal or Colin Farrell (as Bridges’ one-time protégé, now more popular than his mentor) don’t ably support him.