“INVICTUS”

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Morgan Freeman — who has played everything from chauffeurs to presidents, deities to cons — tackles the role of Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s latest, the docu-drama-slash-sports movie, “Invictus”.
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As the film opens, Mandela has just been released from prison; a scene or two later, already the President of South Africa, he is formulating plans for uniting his racially-divided nation.  One idea: to rally the people, black and white, around the fortunes of the South African rugby team, which he is convinced can compete for the championship in the upcoming World Cup tournament.

The captain of the team, ably played by a stocky and square-jawed Matt Damon, becomes his liaison and, even more importantly, his friend.  Freeman and Damon turn in solid, if risk-free, performances; Freeman in particular neatly captures the revered statesman’s regal bearing and twinkly-eyed, grandfatherly warmth.  Indeed, his accent alone may be worth an Oscar.  (For the record, Freeman has been nominated for Best Actor, and Damon for Best Supporting Actor.)

When the big game arrives  —  with, of course, the South African team in it — Damon’s men find themselves squaring off for all the glory against a squad of snarling New Zealanders, and the final part of the film focuses exclusively on the contest itself.  Inside the stadium, a raucous crowd whoops and hollers as the two sides march up and down the field; outside, an entire nation — black and white — has turned on its televisions and tuned in its radios. Life in South Africa has screeched to a halt as every single citizen, it seems, watches, or listens to, the action.  Mandela, of course, was right; the championship match, with its tight score and fevered play, has united his people as nothing ever had before.

Unfortunately, Eastwood sticks so closely to the actual events (the screenplay is based on fact) that “Invictus”, rather than stirring the blood, comes across as scarcely more than a dry, plodding account of a battered nation’s recovery from apartheid.  Even the rugby game, beautifully re-enacted with a you-are-there immediacy, failed to excite us much.
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If only Eastwood had allowed the story to breathe a little, had permitted his stars to bust out a bit rather than remain tethered to the demands of history, maybe then the film would have seemed not only “important” but also — dare we say it — fun.
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FILM REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien