Movie Review: Clint Eastwood's 'Invictus'

Film opens Dec. 11: A number of sports movies have one-word titles (Rocky, Hoosiers), but they're not usually in Latin. Clint Eastwood's Invictus is not your ordinary sports movie, though it comes to a rousing climax at the 1995 Rugby World Cup match between South Africa and New Zealand. The stakes are higher: a nation's unity hangs in the balance. Invictus (which means "unconquered") takes place at the intersection of sports and politics. Its hero is Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman, naturally), who, in the aftermath of apartheid, has just been elected South Africa's president after serving 27 years in prison. (Article continued below…)

During his incarceration, Mandela studied his Afrikaner enemies and was wise to the role sports played in the national psyche. South Africa's less-than-sterling rugby team, the Springbok, was as beloved by whites as it was despised by the black population, to whom it had become a symbol of oppression. Yet Mandela, taking a huge political risk, refuses to give in to his supporters' demand that the team be dismantled and renamed. To do so, he sees, would only stoke fear and racial paranoia in the Afrikaner population. Enlisting the team's captain (Matt Damon) to his side, Mandela challenges him to turn its losing ways around. His goal is to use rugby to bridge the racial divide in his country.

Invictus is not a biopic; nor does it take us deep inside any of its characters—Eastwood views Mandela from a respectful middle distance. It's about strategic inspiration. We witness a politician at the top of his game: Freeman's wily Mandela is a master of charm and soft-spoken gravitas. Anthony Peckham's sturdy, functional screenplay, based on John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy, can be a bit on the nose (and the message songs Eastwood adds are overkill). Yet the lapses fade in the face of such a soul-stirring story—one that would be hard to believe if it were fiction. The wonder of Invictus is that it actually went down this way.