Morgan Freeman’s performance as Nelson Mandela is the best thing “Invictus” has going for it, so much so that it compromises the rest of the film. Oh, the movie’s still entertaining on its own terms, but so much of its impetus depends on Freeman that it loses momentum whenever he’s off-screen. That’s probably because its premise – a bunch of sports underdogs strive to be champions – feels so routine that the movie’s attempts at suspense don’t really work. Still, “Invictus” is undeniably rewarding, even as Freeman’s performance rises above it.
Here, he portrays Mandela in 1994, the year he became president of South Africa. With the memories of apartheid still lingering in the hearts and minds of both black and white citizens, picking up the pieces and moving on is harder than it sounds. Mandela understands that his new leadership obligates him to inspire unity where none has existed for years, and that the primary step is to lead by example – when his team of black bodyguards needs more manpower, he obliges them by adding on a few white ones.
They’re just as reluctant to work together as the rest of South Africa, and when Mandela is scheduled to appear at a rugby game, he smiles gamely as fans jeer and throw garbage. He’s even more disheartened when he discovers that the black spectators aren’t rooting for the home team: The Springboks, under the leadership of Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), are a leftover from the era of apartheid, made all the more symbolic by the fact that they won’t update their name or team colors. They’re not quite famous for their luck on the field, either.
Even though their chances at winning the World Cup next year don’t look very good, Mandela thinks the Springboks can bring everybody together if they give them something to believe in. When he invites Pienaar to his office for tea and makes small talk about what empowers the spirit (Mandela says he takes heart in the William Ernest Henley poem that inspired the movie’s title), he figures out what Mandela’s trying to tell him, and with the 1995 Rugby World Cup on the horizon, Pienaar doesn’t have a lot of time to make the Springboks good enough to go all the way.
The fact that “Invictus” is based on a true story might explain some of the elements that hold it back. Even if you didn’t know who won the big game, director Clint Eastwood approaches the material in a way that makes the ending inevitable. Five years ago, when he made “Million Dollar Baby” – another movie that finds drama in sportsmanship – the characters were provided with enough freedom to work with the plot without being enslaved by it, and it even gave them a few twists to overcome. On top of being more than a bit predictable, “Invictus” uses its characters as means to an end, and has almost no faith in their abilities to establish a connection with the audience.
Then what is it that makes the result so powerful? The film might not think much of its characters, but at least the actors understand them well enough to know that they require some kind of gravity, and they bring so much of their abilities to them that just watching them is worth the price of admission. Even though Freeman’s reputation speaks for itself, the role of Mandela gives him new risks to work with, and he pulls the whole thing off without missing a beat. Damon isn’t any less impressive as Pienaar, and although it’s pretty hard to keep up with Freeman, Damon has just as much screen presence as he does, and they give each other the chemistry they deserve. Though they shouldn’t have had to carry the film by themselves, it isn’t easy to think of anybody who could’ve done it better.