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Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon: Invictus uses the game of rugby as a metaphor for political struggle, to show how the brutality of apartheid was channelled onto the playing field. (Keith Bernstein/©2009 Warner Bros. Entertainment Iand Spyglass Entertainment Funding, LLC.)
Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon: Invictus uses the game of rugby as a metaphor for political struggle, to show how the brutality of apartheid was channelled onto the playing field. (Keith Bernstein/©2009 Warner Bros. Entertainment Iand Spyglass Entertainment Funding, LLC.)

Globe review

Eastwood makes our day with a tale worth telling Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Invictus

  • Directed by Clint Eastwood
  • Written by Anthony Peckham
  • Starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon
  • Classification: PG

Earlier this year, director Quentin Tarantino, at 48, vowed to retire before he was 60, arguing that directors get worse as they get older. Alternatively, he could follow the example of Clint Eastwood and improve with age.

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The whispery macho actor, born in 1930, has done most of his best work since 1990. In particular, Eastwood's creative burst of the last half-dozen years ( Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima ) has earned critical respect and awards for his grown-up, tough-minded dramas about people struggling to prove their worth to themselves and society.

His new movie, Invictus (adapted by Anthony Peckham from John Carlin's book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation ), is too conventional to be rated among his best films, but it's a well-made film with a tale worth telling. The story of how Nelson Mandela chose the white-supported national rugby team, the Springboks, to become a symbol of national reconciliation is uncharacteristically optimistic for Eastwood.

The movie begins in 1990 as Mandela, newly released from jail after 27 years, drives by in a motorcade down a road between two playing fields. On one side of the road, a group of uniformed white men are playing rugby; on the other, a group of ragtag African children are playing soccer. As the car passes, the African kids press to the fence and cheer. The white rugby players watch morosely.

Four years later, Mandela (Morgan Freeman) takes over as president and the white civil servants start packing up their boxes. Mandela asks them to stay, and startles his security guards when he orders them to accept several Afrikaners, the same brutes who defended the apartheid regime, in their ranks. Facing a country where the army and police force and much of the administration is still run by whites, he's anxious to find any symbols to assuage white fears and black anger.

The focus of Invictus is less on Mandela's psychology than his willpower and political astuteness. The title Invictus (Latin for "unconquered") comes from a Victorian poem, written by William Ernest Henley ("My head is bloodied and unbowed"), which served as inspirational reading for the South African leader while he was in prison. A few scenes show Mandela's solitude, estrangement from his family, his fragile health and harrowing schedule. Though there's an aura of saintliness around the leader, Freeman brings his own wry humour to the part, playing Mandela as a combination of Zen master and cagey politician.

When the South African sports authority votes to rename the team and ban the gold and green colours associated with the previous regime, Mandela sees an opportunity to confound expectations. Against his advisors' wishes, he overrules the decision and invites the gentleman captain of the team, François Pienaar (Matt Damon, looking blond and muscular), to tea. Pienaar, an uncomplicated but proud athlete from a well-off family, is awed and inspired by the encounter.

The two men compare notes on leadership and Mandela leaves Pienaar with a mission: He has the government's full support to win the World Cup for South Africa. To do so, the Springboks, who have just one black player, have to commit to becoming the people's team, travelling around the country holding coaching clinics among black youth.

A buildup of popular support and a trio of World Cup victories leads to the World Cup final against the New Zealand All-Blacks. The match occupies the last 20 minutes of the movie. The intense physical struggle of the game is emphasized with overhead shots, which make the scrums look like a many-legged beast in a death spasm. Much of the action focuses on the South African team working to shut down New Zealand's giant star, Jonah Lomu (played by retired New Zealand player Zak Feaunati), known for his speed, power and disconcerting habit of running over top of opponents.

There are many cutaways from the game to celebrating fans - white homeowners and their black maid, white cops and a black street kid, bodyguards of both colours - a technique that's effective, if not particularly subtle.

More impressive is the way that Eastwood uses the game as a metaphor for political struggle, to show how the brutality of apartheid was channelled onto the playing field. For once, the sports-movie cliché "more than a game" has some real resonance.

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