3.5 stars, (PG-13)
Clint Eastwood's Invictus is an inspirational sports movie that manages to be engaging and stirring despite the fact that most people in this country don't know diddly-squat about the sport in question. As a portrait of how Nelson Mandela brought together a fractured nation in 1995, using rugby as a means and a metaphor, it is overly simplistic. Actually, as an inspirational sports movie it's also overly simplistic.
I generally like inspirational sports movies and I had a good time at Invictus. Morgan Freeman is commanding and charismatic as new South African president Mandela, despite an on-again, off-again accent, while Matt Damon absolutely nails his role (and his accent) as Francois Pienaar, captain of the national rugby team, the Springboks. Hell, his body even looks like that of a professional rugby player. Damon disappears into his character so completely that he comes off more like a South African acting newcomer than an established movie star. Nice going, Matt. The rugby matches are fun to watch, even if all I knew was that when the ball went over there, that was a good thing, except sometimes it wasn't.
The biggest problem with the film is this: It's directed by an artist known for his emotional restraint and its two main characters are opaque. Mandela is an icon - a visionary, but we don't see enough of the shadings of the man, just the actions of a larger-than-life heroic figure. Pienaar has the intense focus and reserve that we see in certain great athletes like Peyton Manning, but we don't get inside his head because his focus blocks out everything except what is needed to reach the team's goal.
So Eastwood, working from a screenplay by Anthony Peckham based on the book Playing the Enemy by John Carlin, tries to add emotional nuance through vignettes with minor characters. A housekeeper establishes a stronger standing with her employers. Rival presidential bodyguards build a grudging respect for each other. A little boy trying to listen to the big match gets shooed away by police, but keeps coming back. Each vignette is entertaining, if overripe, but they reinforce just one message: Through the president's crazy vision about rugby, we become united.
That's wonderful, but as an American in late 2009 watching a president elected on a vision of a better tomorrow getting mired down in traditional politics while a significant number of citizens continue throwing a tantrum over the notion of a man with dark skin being in charge, it's hard to accept Invictus at face value. Eastwood and the screenwriter needed to take bigger chances, show us more, acknowledge the struggles ahead on the road to reconciliation. Is history ever this neat? The movie is too tidy, too stately.
Some will argue that, at two hours and 14 minutes, it's also too long. I checked my watch and the big match at the end runs for just over 15 minutes. I enjoyed it, but a number of people around me were clearly getting restless. Bottom line: Invictus pays off as a formula inspirational sports movie. As something richer than that, however, it's as wobbly as Morgan Freeman's accent.