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Invictus / **** (PG-13)

Posted Friday, December 18, 2009, at 2:10 PM

Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon bring racial unity through the sport of rugby in the new Clint Eastwood directed movie "Invictus".
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Anthony Peckham. Based on the Book "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation". Running time: 134 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief strong language).

Back in the late '70s and early '80s, Hollywood's golden boy directors were Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. They were the directors to watch, the future of Hollywood. And while they were living up to their reputations by diving into the madness of Vietnam, breaking down the barriers of an American sports icon, and invading the planet with benevolent aliens; Clint Eastwood was still taming the west as an unnamed outlaw and hanging out with a monkey who liked to make right turns. Who would've thought that Eastwood would one day be making the most important films of all four of them?

"Invitcus" is just about a perfectly timed film. When Eastwood was in the planning stages of this movie, the United States was approaching its greatest economic downfall since the great depression and had yet to see its first black man elected President. A milestone has been passed in our country, and we've entered into a journey that promises to be both harrowing and rewarding. "Invictus" acts as a reminder of how far we've come and how far we've yet to go by looking at racial prejudice in another country and time that had much farther to go and made an even more monumental leap.

His movie begins with the 1990 release of Nelson Mandela from his 27 years of incarceration under the oppressive policy of apartheid in South Africa. Like many an Eastwood endeavor, the director doesn't waste time with incidentals. His movie is not about apartheid, so he shows us some racially biased reactions to Mandela's release and then quickly moves the movie forward to the first fully democratic election of South Africa in 1994, in which the overwhelming first-time participation of black voters lead to Mandela's five-year term as president of the nation that had once imprisoned him as a terrorist.

The movie is not interested in Mandela's policies so much as his desire to unite his country and show the world what racial harmony can look like. Very little time is spent on state business or with Mandela's practices of governing. Instead Eastwood focuses on Mandela's obsession with its national rugby team, the Springboks, and the people both black and white surrounding the team and his immediate cabinet.

The team is a point of pride for white Africans, despite the fact that they have not performed well in the big matches. It's also a focal point of derision for the black people of South Africa. Mandela observes during a game against long time rivals England that all the black fans are rooting for the opposing team. Going against the popular beliefs of his people, Mandela pleads with the black contingent now in power to keep the Springboks in order to prevent alienating his white countrymen. Then he boldly invites the team's captain, Francois Pienaar, to tea and challenges him to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which is to be hosted by South Africa.

Some critics have misinterpreted Eastwood's film as "a typical sports flick". In structure it's very much a sports film. The Springboks are the underdogs who must reach into the reserves of their souls to pull out a string of unlikely victories and raise themselves to the highest pinnacle of their sport. It might sound like "The Bad News Bears", but Eastwood acts much like Mandela in his methodology of using a popular medium to get his message across. While "Invictus" looks and sounds like a sports movie, it's actually a movie about tolerance and how unity can be achieved with the right visionaries in place to see success where others can't.

A key to Eastwood's insight can be found in the supporting players and subplots. While the movie is firmly focused on Mandela's seemingly misguided interest in how the Springboks perform on the world stage when his country's internal affairs are a muddy mess of racism and economic failings, it's in the subplots where Eastwood's message can be found. Besides Pienaar's leadership role, most of the movie's subplots focus on Mandela's multi-racial cabinet and security force and their struggles to understand his policy of equality over black rule. Their story is the heart of the movie. Their hurdles are the highest.

Morgan Freeman ("The Dark Knight") and Matt Damon ("The Bourne Ultimatum") are impeccable in their roles as Mandela and Pienaar respectively. Although their efforts are award worthy, due respect must also be paid to the supporting cast. With past films Eastwood has been criticized for not filling the supporting roles with seasoned actors. Such is not the case this time around. The supporting cast is just as strong as the leading players, especially the work of Tony Kgoroge ("Hotel Rwanda") as Mandela's chief of security who reluctantly must employ the experienced white officers of the state secret service.

I find it interesting that change seems forced into developing during times of great duress on a national scale. South Africa, despite the anti-apartheid changes embraced by its government, couldn't have been in a more volatile state in the early '90s. A great many people were faced with life changes unthinkable just a few years earlier, and many on both sides didn't know how to function under these new social parameters. Our own country, while not surfacing from as severe racial oppression as apartheid, is also in the middle of the most divisive time period of my lifetime. The political climate of our country is deplorable, with each side slinging their mud through political pundits that only profit from the divisive nature of their comments and actions. Intolerance seems to be on the rise, and yet we still finally breached our political race barrier by electing the first black president in our nation's history. No matter which side you fall on, it's important to recognize the monumental change that has resulted from our tumultuous times. Eastwood reflects on another country's great leap in this film. Hopefully, our country will look back as fondly on what we have done in this decade for our country's future.

"Invictus" is currently playing at Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.

Visit A Penny in the Well for DVDs, film clips, and a world leader based star rating scale.

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Let us hope that we in the United States can find our own Springbok. We so need it. We are going through the same transition as South Africa but on a much less extreme circumstance.Even though our situation is much less extreme, the devision could still tear our country apart.

-- Posted by izaak on Sun, Jan 3, 2010, at 10:32 PM

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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.
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