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"INVICTUS"
(2009) (Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: The newly elected President of South Africa hopes to begin reconciliation among his black and white constituents by urging them to unite behind the nation's rugby team in the World Cup.
PLOT:
It's 1995 and after serving decades in prison for his involvement in putting an end to apartheid, Nelson Mandela (MORGAN FREEMAN) is now the President of South Africa just five years after his release. Yet, rather than get petty revenge on the white minority that imprisoned him and segregated his majority race, he wants to bring everyone together in reconciliation so that their country can move forward.

He starts in his own office, informing former staffers he won't make employment decisions based on race, and has white security personnel such as Etienne Feyder (JULIAN LEWIS JONES) and Hendrick Booyens (MATT STERN) join the black bodyguards, including Jason Tshabalala (TONY KGOROGE) and Linga Moonsamy (PATRICK MOFOKENG), who've long been with him.

His next decision, however, proves to be more controversial. Despite insistence by Brenda Mazibuko (ADJOA ANDOH), his personal assistant who fears a backlash among his supporters, Nelson decides that a good way for the nation to come together is for everyone to root for the national rugby team, the Springboks, in the upcoming World Cup.

The only problem (beyond them having a losing record) is that most of the country's blacks hate the team as they view it as an icon of the past rule and discrimination, especially with only one black player, Chester Williams (McNEIL HENDRICKS), on the squad. Nevertheless, Nelson convinces the sports commission to reverse their decision to eliminate the team, and then meets with its captain, Francois Pienaar (MATT DAMON), to encourage him to lead by example and get his teammates to play to the best of their abilities.

From that point on, Francois attempts to do just that, all while Mandela ceaselessly works to bring his country together as they watch the rugby team surprisingly make their way through the World cup toward the finals.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
If you think about it, nothing really unifies people like sports, be that on the global, national or even local level. After all, it's the in-person, communal experience of cheering on your player or team's success, while rooting for the failure of the opponent, that bonds people -- at least temporarily -- and makes them forget their racial, social and political differences. Simply put, everyone puts all of that on the back burner while joining forces for what they see as the common good.

Nelson Mandela knows a thing or two about getting people on the same page despite current or past differences, and obviously recognized the power of sports back in 1995 when he pushed for national unity in cheering on South Africa's Springboks national team in the Rugby World Cup.

With the nation facing upheaval and social unrest following the end of apartheid, the rise to power of the ANC (African National Congress) and the election of Mandela to President following his jailing from 1962 to 1990 by the white minority (that was now out of power), things didn't look good.

Realizing that, and despite the black majority mostly hating the nearly all-white rugby team for being an icon of sorts for the former rule and oppression, the new President took the unpopular stance of urging everyone to put the past behind them and move forward in a common direction. While it obviously wasn't the only thing that helped heal the nation, it was certainly a significant part.

Now that little known bit of history (at least to those outside South Africa) gets the cinematic limelight in "Invictus," the latest film directed by Clint Eastwood -- who's now on a streak of two movies dealing with race relations (the other being last year's "Gran Torino"). Good, but not great, the film benefits from the uplifting true story and solid performances from the main and even supporting characters.

Yet, it glosses over details (including any sort of knowledge about Mandela and his country's history, not to mention exactly how rugby is played) that could have added some depth (if not just basic understanding for those not in the know) and loses momentum in the third act where a fairly sizable amount of screen time is chewed up in the presentation of the pivotal championship game.

While that's obviously the payoff for everything that's been building up to that point, Eastwood -- working from Anthony Peckham's adaptation of John Carlin's book "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation" -- seemingly acts as if we've never seen a sports film before. Granted, this is more than just that, but the final match just goes on and on (and then on some more) without really offering any new slant on the genre's standard, big concluding contest.

That part of the film focuses most on Matt Damon playing the captain of the unpopular and losing team (that is, until the World Cup run). The actor has pumped himself up to better physically match the real Francois Pienaar and is quite good in the role, even with a convincing (at least to this untrained ear) South African accent. Except for McNeil Hendricks as the team's lone black member, however, the rest of the players are barely personified (and it would have been nice getting into Chester's head to see a deeper view of his thoughts about playing on the team).

Such reactions to Mandela's stance on the team and nation are relegated to Tony Kgoroge (as a black bodyguard who hates rugby and being assigned to work with what he believes are untrustworthy white security personnel) and Adjoa Andoh as the President's personal assistant who urges him not to make what she fears will be a wildly unpopular decision regarding the rugby team.

But it's Morgan Freeman playing the famous leader (and reuniting for the third time with Eastwood directing him) that grounds the film and makes it work. While the portrayal is just a brief slice of time rather than a biopic about Mandela, Freeman easily transforms into the man (notwithstanding a few moments where the accent slips away, presumably a byproduct of the film's scenes, as usual, being shot out of order).

Some may object to what's essentially a summary of the man rather than a full-blown examination (there's talk of his past, but only one brief imagined flashback to him in prison), but that didn't bother me as much as the third act becoming a prolonged highlight reel of various plays in the final World Cup match. Although that will probably work for less discerning viewers, I found that it sucked momentum away from the drama and simply went on far too long without offering anything new to something we've seen far too many times before.

For those wondering about the film's title, it comes from William Ernest Henley's poem of the same name that serves as the story's theme (and is what Mandela states helped him survive his prison ordeal) and ends with "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul."

In the end, "Invictus" is a good movie that feels as if it should have been great, and perhaps would have been with a little more depth and a little less rugby. It rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed December 2, 2009 / Posted December 11, 2009


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