Review: Invictus Is So the Feel-Good Movie About Rugby and Racism You've Been Waiting For

Clint Eastwood's docudrama about Nelson Mandela's effort to unite South Africa behind its rugby team is filled with eel-good "teachable moments"--without the sugary aftertaste.

By Dezhda Gaubert Dec 10, 2009 9:42 PMTags
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Review in a Hurry: Politics and sport intersect in Clint Eastwood's latest, a docudrama about Nelson Mandela's effort to unite post-apartheid South Africa with the full-contact sport of rugby. Absorbing, often electric with the energy of the playing field, Invictus is packed of feel-good "teachable moments" without the sugary aftertaste.

The Bigger Picture: Newly elected South African president Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) has an idea: Ease racial tension—at least superficially—through sports. Specifically, by rallying around the national rugby team, the Springboks. It's a fool's errand—they can't stop losing, let alone even think about winning the World Cup, and the nearly all-white team symbolizes racial tyranny to millions of South Africans. Nevertheless, Mandela enlists team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) in his quest to fill stadiums with both black and white fans, and, ultimately, boost the spirits of his country.

It's the two men's parallel journeys—Mandela's efforts to prove himself as president, Pienaar as a team leader coming into his own–that propel the film. All who surround them, from Mandela's security detail to Pienaar's teammates, are shaken from their comfort zone. These everyday people finding a new normal, a new humanity, adds texture to the very simple theme of tolerance.

Compared to Eastwood's recent dramas—Gran Torino, Mystic RiverInvictus is practically a comedy. We have two likeable heroes, played by two darn likeable actors, and an easygoing, gentle humor. And it's based on a true story, so it's no spoiler to say the ending, whether or not the 'Boks win the Cup, is a heartening tear-jerker.

Eastwood is never one to sink too deeply in sentiment, though. (This is Dirty Harry, remember.) Sure, writer Anthony Peckham's script (based on John Carlin's book Playing the Enemy) occasionally leans too heavily on platitudes, and Eastwood overdoes the slow-mo during white-knuckle action sequences. Mostly, though, this is a sensitive, clear-eyed look at how a country started to fill in the deep crack that divided its people.

The 180—a Second Opinion: The Springboks magically improve overnight—one or two tough practices seem to be all it takes to get them into fighting shape. Oh, if it were only that easy. A little more coverage of the sporting side of this story would have been most welcome.


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