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All Forgiven

MOVIE REVIEW
Invictus (2009)

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Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros. Pictures

“I am the master of my fate,” reads the William Ernest Henley poem from which Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” takes its title. “I am the captain of my soul.” Those words helped Nelson Mandela through the insane ordeal of the 27 years he spent ensconced in a tiny prison cell and they lie at the core of the tale of reconciliation Mr. Eastwood presents here.

Although the filmmaker, working from a screenplay by Anthony Peckham, splits the screen time between Mr. Mandela (Morgan Freeman), Mr. Mandela’s security team and South African rugby captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon), “Invictus” is really Mr. Mandela’s story. The rest is glorified filler, applied to give an accessible structure to a narrative centered on the inner strength required to forgive the most heinous wrongs.

The film begins with his inauguration and chronicles the delicate period of his first months in office in which he faced the enormous, unparalleled task of reconstructing the heart and mind of the post-apartheid nation. With great foresight, he ascertains the need for a unifying symbol to serve as the sort of rallying cry that can bring even the hardiest of enemies together, and recognizes sport to be it. So begins his concerted advocacy for the Springboks, the national rugby team long associated by the black population with the Apartheid regime. He hopes to inspire the team to pick up their game and qualify for the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Mr. Freeman takes on Mr. Mandela’s mannerisms with natural grace, nailing the self-assuredness, the ease with which the inspiring, passionate leader emerged from the twinkling, low-key charmer. He manages the difficult feat of seeming simultaneously larger than life and palpably human. It might well be impossible to produce a biopic that adequately evokes the astounding resolve of such a man, so ready to open his heart to his former antagonists. Messrs. Eastwood and Freeman come close, presenting a fully-formed picture of a charismatic, wise individual who was — just like the great leaders in history — the man for his age.

His presence and the storyline it inhabits loom so large that the picture falters when it transitions away from them. The game Mr. Damon is given little to work with in his silent, committed captain, who wears but one determined expression throughout. The security-team subplot plods along, seeming like a hastily put together microcosmic lesson in tolerance when black and white former enemies unite behind the common goal of protecting the president. In fact, the movie hardly touches on the deeper issues and more ingrained problems that still roiled the country. The narrative’s narrow focus rejects the more immersive, broader view of the milieu that might have helped drive home the significance of Mr. Mandela’s symbolic victory.

Mr. Eastwood, at his best in smaller-scale dramas rooted in weighty philosophical issues, seems ill at ease with the upbeat sports movie form. He lessens the impact of the climactic game with a repetitive series of cuts to hackneyed scenes of groups gathering to hang onto every word of its broadcast. Too much of the post-racial harmony stuff feels contrived and moralistic, wrapped in such a tidy package that it really does seem like one rugby game could change the world.

Yet, Mr. Mandela’s steadfast advocacy for the Springboks was, according to Wikipedia, “widely seen as a major step in the reconciliation of white and black South Africans.” To watch Mr. Freeman’s work — in which reason and sly affection replace dictatorial bombast — is to understand exactly why Mr. Mandela loomed so large in the collective national conscience. To watch him stand in front of the all black National Sports Council and dissuade them from abolishing the Springboks, extolling the virtues of ending the seemingly endless cycle of hate and distrust, is to experience greatness. The depth accorded the central character, the anchor for the narrative and the nation, makes it possible to forgive Mr. Eastwood’s softer touches and emerge from “Invictus” genuinely moved.

INVICTUS

Opens on Dec. 11 in the United States and on Feb. 5, 2010 in Britain.

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Anthony Peckham, based on the book “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens; production designer, James J. Murakami; produced by Mr. Eastwood, Lori McCreary, Robert Lorenz and Mace Neufeld; released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela), Matt Damon (François Pienaar) and Adjoa Andoh (Brenda Mazibuko).

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