If it’s the end of the year, it must be time for a new prestige picture from Clint Eastwood. Like 2008’s “Gran Torino,” 2006’s “Flags of Our Fathers”/”Letters From Iwo Jima,” 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby” and 2003’s “Mystic River,” “Invictus” is custom-made for awards season.
It’s a tale of reconciliation and forgiveness with a tour-de-force performance by Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, one of the most compelling figures of the 20th century. It touches on the hard issues of our time without coming off as treacly or opportunistically preachy.
It’s also bland and takes a distinctively paint-by-numbers approach to the subject matter, unfortunately. “Invictus” isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not nearly the rousing success it could have been.
Mandela, fresh off of his win in the first post-apartheid South African presidential election, is confronted forcefully by the need for reconciliation in the weeks and months after his historic victory. He is the leader of a country that is ready to tear itself apart in an orgy of retribution for the sins of the past.
Searching for a symbol of unity, Mandela settles on the Springboks — South Africa’s famed rugby team, which is seen by many black South Africans as a symbol of Afrikaner oppression — as the vehicle by which to achieve his dreams of a unified South Africa.
It’s a tough sell for Mandela’s black allies: They would cheer for whichever team happened to be playing against the Springboks during apartheid, much to the chagrin of white South Africans. Indeed, as the movie opens, Mandela’s supporters are voting to rename the team, mostly to spite the Afrikaners who so love the ‘boks.
Mandela’s campaign to win respect for the ruggers in the black community — and convince the Springboks that bringing the country together is worth more than any trophy or international acclaim a World Cup win would bring — runs squarely through the Afrikaner captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). Without Francois leading his team by example, the effort is doomed to failure.
Mr. Freeman’s performance as Nelson Mandela is likely to garner him another Oscar nomination: He brings the great man to life in an eerily accurate way, down to speech patterns and the slight stoop Mandela had when he walked. Mr. Damon, meanwhile, masters the tricky Afrikaans accent and comes across as a credible rugby player.
For a movie that revolves around a nation’s triumph at a rugby tournament, there’s very little on-field action. This makes sense because the movie isn’t really about rugby. It’s about leadership and the will to do what’s right, even if it’s not easy.
Still, there’s something vaguely generic about “Invictus.” It hits all the right notes, but it does so in a perfunctory manner. The movie isn’t quite lifeless, but it does feel drained of the urgency it needs to push it over the top and into consideration for best picture of the year.
RATING: PG-13 for brief strong language
CREDITS: Directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Anthony Peckham
RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes
WEB SITE: http://invictusmovie.warnerbros.com/
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS