The poem “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, was a huge inspiration to Nelson Mandela, because he spent 27 years in a South African prison. In 1994, when he became the first post-Apartheid president, he knew that Afrikaner nationalists were bracing themselves for a payback. In Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Invictus,” he explores how Mandela ingeniously used the game of rugby to help his people find common ground.
Mandela (Morgan Freeman) realizes that tensions are high, and, in his infinite wisdom, chooses to set politics aside and concentrate on unification. He has an incredible idea. He believes that if South Africa could take the Rugby World Cup, it could possibly generate solidarity, which his beloved country so desperately needs. The rest is history.
Matt Damon plays the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar, who’s not convinced that the black population will rally behind a traditionally all-white sport. But after meeting with Mandela, he’s inspired by the calm confidence that the president exudes. During their conversation, Mandela mentions the poem “Invictus” and the impact it had upon him during difficult times. Its last two lines emotionally strike Pienaar: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
Eastwood and Freeman make a good team. They were outstanding together in “Million Dollar Baby.” Freeman garnered an Oscar, and odds are in his favor that another may be just around the corner. But I don’t think that “Invictus” is on a par with Eastwood’s previous films. Famous for triumph-of-the-spirit movie-making, this one fell somewhat flat. I didn’t feel that immense passion, which I’ve come to expect from such a distinguished artist.
Don’t get me wrong. “Invictus” has its moments. When team members are taken to the facility in which Mandela was incarcerated, it is moving beyond words. Eastwood shoots the actual cell, and it is utterly unforgettable. In another shot, the captain of a South African airliner illegally buzzes a bank over the rugby field just prior to the final game’s start, and the crowd goes crazy (as do Mandela’s security guards). And, as always, Eastwood’s signature impeccable scoring is ever present throughout the film.
The last 20 minutes of “Invictus” are spellbinding. The camerawork capturing the rugby game is electrifying. But what really grabbed me while watching the movie was the message that Mandela sent to his people and the entire world ... “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It is the most powerful weapon.” Indeed.
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