Nothing speaks so dramatically about Clint Eastwood’s recent and remarkable burst of creativity as a director of awards-worthy films than the appearance of “Invictus,” a historical drama that few if any filmmakers could have launched within the studio system. Here is a movie about Nelson Mandela, South Africa after apartheid and, of all things, the sport of rugby. None is high on any list of topics that studio suits crave, which tend more toward vampires and superheroes. Even the title — that of a Victoria-era poem — is obscure.
When released during a December storm of Oscar contenders, “Invictus” will pull its audience from adventurous, older moviegoers. Even the presence of Matt Damon, along with Morgan Freeman, will bring in only a small number of younger people. But for those who do buy tickets, it will be a pleasure for them to encounter a movie that’s actually about something.
The downside here is a certain trepidation on the filmmakers’ part to dig very deeply into what is still a politically sensitive situation. Then too, the real-life protagonists are very much alive and one an iconic figure. That’s always a problem for any film that wants to deal with such personalities as flesh-and-blood characters.
The opening scene brilliant sets the stage. Released from prison on February 11, 1990 after 27 years, Mandela (Freeman) travels in a motorcade that passes between two fenced sports fields. On one, white youths in spiffy uniforms play rugby. On the other pitch, black kids kick a soccer ball. The black kids rush to the fence while the white kids’ coach tells his charges to mark the day when their country went to the dogs.
At once, Eastwood and South African writer Anthony Peckham deliver a metaphor for a nation divided along racial lines and a hint that sports will be one of Mandela’s strategies for bringing South Africans together.
Four years later, Mandela is the country’s first black president. Many white citizens fear black rule just as many black citizens look to Mandela for revenge. It’s a prescription for social instability and political disaster.
Mandela hits upon an ambitious plan to use the national rugby team, the Springboks — long an embodiment of white-supremacist rule — to grip the new South Africa as the team prepares to host the 1995 World Cup. So he begins to woo its Afrikaner captain, Francois Pienaar (Damon), to his cause.
In the beginning, the Springboks are portrayed as the rugby equivalent of the Bad News Bears. But a string of improbable wins brings them to the finals against a New Zealand team that is an overwhelming favorite.
The film, based upon the book “Playing the Enemy” by John Carlin, has an understandably narrow focus of 1995 South Africa. Mandela is seen only in the context of a sudden rugby convert. He signs papers and greets international delegations between matches. Francois is glimpsed with a family and wife — or girlfriend, even this is unclear — but he exists solely to play his sport.
The film enters neither of their lives. It’s a film about a nation’s psyche, not its individuals. Where you would love a vigorous portrayal of two larger-than-life personalities, the film tiptoes through polite scenes where everyone speaks and acts with political correctness.
Likewise, the actors stick close to the surface. Freeman gives you a folksy yet sagacious leader. He ambles rather than walks and peers at people with sly wisdom gleaming in his eyes. He doesn’t try to plumb the depths of a one-time rebel or a man struggling to keep both his nation and family together. Indeed the film writes his former wife, Winnie, out of the picture altogether and a daughter is seen glaring at him or the TV whenever rugby gets mentioned. Why is she so angry?
Damon has taken the flabby dough-boy body from “The Informant!” and chiseled it into pure muscle. He looks like a rugby player. What he thinks about apartheid or Mandela or anything else you never learn. He certainly respects the nation’s president but their relationship is largely ceremonial.
The film’s title stems from a short poem by the British poet William Ernest Henley, first published in 1875, that Mandela often recited to himself while imprisoned on Robben Island. The key final lines are: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Francois finds meaning here too as he seeks to lead his team to victory.
So this is a conventional film that takes the measure of a country’s emotional temperature but not its individual citizens. The game scenes are skillfully done — the sound of the body hits lets you know why rugby is an orthopedist’s delight. CGI shots and other effects seamlessly fill the stands with thousands and convert contemporary South African locations back 14 years.
The film’s money shots come at the end when blacks and whites cheer and embrace. For once a sports victory is something more than just another win. What’s missing though is a human relationship to carry you through to this end. Mandela maintains convivial, even humorous relationships with all his staff and advisors and Francois seems to have a loving family — and a black maid who shrewdly watches everything in the household.
Somewhere here, even among the president’s bodyguards who are portrayed in surprising detail, there may have been a few people who could carry the emotional ball, so to speak. As it is, we applaud the final game but must leave the cheering to the on-screen fans.
Opens: Dec. 11 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Spyglass Entertainment, presents a Revelations Entertainment/Mace Neufeld and Malpaso production
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Langley Kirkwood, Grant Roberts
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Anthony Peckham
Based on the book by: John Carlin
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Lori McCreary, Mace Neufeld
Executive producers: Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Morgan Freeman, Tim Moore
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: James J. Murakami
Music: Michael Stevens, Kyle Eastwood
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editor: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
Rated PG-13, 132 minutes