By Brian Lafferty
December 21, 2009 (San Diego’s East County)--Invictus is a movie that brought out a lot of the fan in me. It is a feel good film that had me cheering. It is one of the most rousing films of the year.
The movie begins with the release of Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) after decades of imprisonment. Through sometimes shocking and powerful real news footage, which includes riots, we see Mandela winning the South African presidency against all odds. This news footage is real from 1994, but in Forrest Gump style Morgan Freeman is digitally, and seamlessly, inserted in the real Mandela’s place. It wasn’t even five minutes in and I was starting to cheer for him to succeed.
Mandela inherits a country that has long been torn by political strife over its apartheid policy, which was a legal form of segregation that lasted for almost half a century. Even though it has been abolished, the wounds still remain and Mandela’s life is constantly in danger. At the beginning, a suspicious van seems to follow him and two of his bodyguards on his daily early morning walk. However, it turns out to be someone delivering newspapers. Even the press has doubts, running front page articles that question his ability to run the country.
Mandela is a very complex man. Against the vehement objections of his black bodyguards, he hires white bodyguards, men who in the past could have been likely candidates to assassinate him. He refuses to fire them, citing not only the need for additional men but that the need for trust and reconciliation starts here. There is conflict between the two groups both in culture and in language but they put aside their differences to protect the President.
Mandela gets an opportunity to unite the Apartheid-torn South Africa. He enlists the struggling Rugby team, captained by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to win the World Cup in the hopes of bringing together the country’s two factions, the prejudiced whites and the repressed blacks.
Invictus is not an average sports movie. There is the Big Game at the end but I still found myself taken and entranced. Perhaps it’s because of the sport, which is very high-contact and exciting to watch. But also, I felt like I was there, in the middle of the action. The cheering, or to be more accurate, roaring of the crowd, the constant grunting of the players, and the exaggerated thud sounds of bodies hitting each other and the ground left me feeling involved.
What distinguishes this movie from other formulaic sports movies is that there is much more on the line than just a championship, self-respect and redemption. Many sports movies stop there, but Invictus has something more important riding on it: the unification of a strife-torn South Africa. The ending is predictable, yes, but I found myself caring about the team, the players, and the game because the implications of the outcome would affect more than just the team; it would affect the whole country.
The Rugby matches, in addition to having superb sound design, are easy to follow. The editors wisely shun using an average shot length of two seconds in favor of lengthier takes that allow enough time to comprehend the action before moving on to the next shot. As a result, there was not a single instance in which I was confused about the action on screen.
The screenplay, written by Anthony Peckham, is well-written to say the very least. There is not a single line wasted. Everyone has something important and substantial to say. Every line of dialogue has thought and 100% effort put into it. Mandela’s speeches, which tend to run several minutes at a time, are rousing, intelligent, and worth the time it takes to listen to because he speaks so well. Even the minor characters, including those seen only once or twice in the entire movie, are given dialogue that is memorable and well-written.
Morgan Freeman is the perfect choice for Mandela. Like his character, Freeman is a charismatic actor, which lends credence to a man who was able to overcome prejudice and seemingly insurmountable odds to win an election. All the performances in the movie, even by the minor characters, help enhance the picture by making even ordinary scenes exciting to watch to see what happens next.
Invictus is no doubt one of the feel good movies of the year. It is a political movie as well as a sports film but it is never, not even for a single solitary frame, preachy. There is hardly a thing about this movie to not like. Ever since The Bad News Bears was released in the 1970s, many sports movies copied, with little success, its formula of a losing team getting better and winning the big game. This movie does have that formula but it also has what many of its emulators lack: heart and intelligence. I love movies that aren’t afraid to be different; this one succeeds on this and many other levels.
A Warner Bros. release. Director: Clint Eastwood. Screenplay: Anthony Peckham, based on the book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation” by John Carlin. Original Music: Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens. Cinematography: Tom Stern. Cast: Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Runtime: 134 minutes. Rated PG-13.