"He's not a saint. He's a man."
That's the message one secret service guard tells a colleague in regards to Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately the message never got through to Clint Eastwood or Anthony Peckham, director and writer of "Invictus" (2009).
As embodied by Morgan Freeman, the recently elected (in 1994) President Mandela is a visionary prone to dramatic inspirational speeches. Determined to unite the country rather than exact revenge for years of racist tyranny, he sets his sights on the country's divisive national rugby team, the nearly all-white Springboks. The Springboks are as loved by their white boosters as they are disliked by black fans but Mandela believes that if they can win the 1995 World Cup, hosted by South Africa, the entire country will celebrate as one.
It reeks of sports movie cliché, but also happens to be a true story, and the screenplay is based on a non-fiction account by writer John Carlin. Mandela's support of the Springboks is perceptive and controversial; he has to use his inspirational oratory skills to convince an angry committee not to advocate for the disbandment of the team. But as far as a plan goes, "Win the World Cup" echoes the "Simpsons" episode in which manager Mr. Burns cagily instructs slugger Darryl Strawberry to "hit a home run."
All Mandela can really do is engage in a true sports movie cliché this time: the pep talk. He calls in team captain Francois Pienaar (a massively bulked-up Matt Damon) in order to inspire him to, well, inspire his own team. He even uses the word "inspire" about a dozen times just to make matters clear. Apparently not having thought previously about trying really hard to win, Francois rallies the troops to do just that, culminating in the historic upset victory over the heavily favored New Zealand All Blacks (a reference to the team's uniforms.)
Freeman brings with him the gravitas that made him a natural casting choice as God but, saddled with the often stilted, heavy-handed dialogue by Peckham, he portrays Mandela more as a legend than as a man, a symbolic figure who is play-acting an already determined history rather than living in the uncertain moment. He has a ready, eloquent answer for every question and evinces few signs of doubt. He's just waiting for every one else to catch up to his clarity of vision. Limited to lines like "It's not enough. Not now. Not so close!" Freeman can only generate a few empathetic moments like the scene where Mandela lets down his guard and shows genuine joy when the team scores a crucial drop goal.
But getting to know Mandela is not Eastwood's primary interest. He keeps the film narrowly focused on Mandela's support of the Springboks and Francois' determination not to let the president or the country down. Racial tensions can't be ignored, of course, but Eastwood treats them rather perfunctorily by showing the uneasy alliance between Mandela's black and white secret service guards who serve no other narrative function in the film.
It's all about the Cup, and this otherwise rote film springs to life in the championship match which occupies most of the film's final forty minutes. Eastwood creates a stirring sense of dynamism by cutting from the players to the guards to Mandela to cheering fans both at the stadium and in their homes, and even to the sounds of the game echoing through the streets. At least according to Eastwood, the game enveloped all of South Africa and the nifty editing (by longtime Eastwood collaborators Joel Cox and Gary Roach) in this sequence conveys a sense of national scope while also portraying some riveting sports action that becomes increasingly abstract and poetic as the game unfolds. Even for rugby-ignorant audiences, it's involving and, yes, inspirational material.
If only the rest of the film was as inspirational. Damon, decked out in his brand-new sheath of muscle, is completely convincing as the team's captain but until the final game we don't see that much of him in action. After Mandela's "Gipper" speech to Francois, "Invictus" pretty much just marks time until the big match. And as for whether the World Cup win actually fulfills Mandela's dream of uniting the post-Apartheid nation, Eastwood has nothing to say, choosing to end the film with cheering fans and a photo montage over the credits. It's a high note to finish on, but not one with any resonance.