Not Much Truth, But Plenty of Reconciliation in Clint Eastwood's Invictus
Aside from Morgan Freeman, who makes a fabulous Nelson Mandela, there's this to savor about Invictus, a rosy tale of racial reconciliation neatly wrapped in a triumphalist sports movie: The film is blessedly free of Obama parallels. Also, we could use a happy global moment, and Eastwood picks one out of the otherwise rocky history of South Africa, when the country's first post-apartheid president stepped out of the jail where he'd languished for 27 years and firmly set aside revenge politics in favor of national unity.
More than most, Mandela understood the cohesive power of the symbol—in this case, the bright green uniform of the South African rugby team the Springboks. Adapted by South African writer Anthony Peckham from a book by former London Independent journalist John Carlin, Invictus tells the story of how Mandela, with help from the Afrikaner team captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), turned a World Cup rugby match into a moment of rainbow solidarity.
Like every Eastwood production, Invictus is stately, handsomely mounted, attentive to detail right down to the Marmite adorning the team's breakfast buffet and relentlessly conventional. As a portrait of a hero, the movie effortlessly brings a lump to the throat; as history, it is borderline daft and selective to the point of distortion. It's true that you can't shoehorn a nation's history into a single movie, but Peckham's dialogue blazes an indecently fast trail from mutual suspicion to interracial love and understanding.
The powerful dislike between Mandela's black and white bodyguards melts into reverence for their leader and joint cheerleading for the team. Within minutes of their enforced arrival in the shantytowns, the Springboks are happily hoisting adoring little black boys onto their shoulders.
Never mind that many white supremacists fled abroad to seethe in safety over the end of white privilege. Never mind that the African National Congress, the very movement that had worked for years to free Mandela and bring down apartheid, is confined here to a lone reductive scene that dismisses a complex resistance group as a group of thuggish ideologues.
That Mandela is a great man is beyond dispute—but that's no excuse to position him in a Great Man theory of history. In the end, Invictus becomes what almost every Eastwood movie becomes: an inquiry into masculinity shaped in the director's own image.
Eastwood's perennial ideal is all here in Mandela the courtly gentleman, Mandela the elderly yet still potent flirt, Mandela the dry wit—above all, in Mandela the rugged individualist who won't toe the PC line when duty suggests otherwise.
Manning up in Eastwoodland has matured with age, from "Revenge is sweet" (the final scene in Unforgiven) to "The best revenge is living well." Maybe, but in real life, that's not enough. Mandela befriended his prison guards and refused to make enemies of South African whites, including his former tormentors. Yet for all his lovely manners, his donations to worthy causes, his insistence on pouring his own tea or even his high-minded dedication to reconciling former enemies, South Africa today is a muddle of hope and despair.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.