Politics and rugby collide in director Clint Eastwood's thoughtful drama about post-apartheid South Africa and two men who helped unite a fractured country. Inspiring messages about equality, forgiveness and understanding resonate thanks to Eastwood's deft hand and standout performances by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.
Racial tensions are high in early- to mid-1990s South Africa, following the end of apartheid and the election of President Nelson Mandela (Freeman). Many South African citizens root against the country's national rugby team -- the Springboks -- viewing it as a symbol of oppression and prejudice. The vocal majority aims to have the team disbanded, until Mandela intercedes and urges solidarity over "petty revenge."
Mandela sees the struggling Springboks as an opportunity to mend fences and meets with team captain Francois Pienaar (Damon), encouraging the humble Pienaar to lead his team on an improbable Rugby World Cup championship run. A mutual admiration and respect develops between the two men, although Mandela's skeptical bodyguards and assistants question their president's unusual tactics. But with Mandela's unwavering support and Pienaar's steadfast determination, the populace is soon thinking team color over skin color.
Eastwood has cemented himself as one of the great American directors, and his compassionate touch on films like this is exactly why. He brings a quiet sincerity to every scene, whether it's Mandela getting out of bed or Pienaar delivering a motivational speech. Freeman and Damon -- both lauded in Hollywood for their skill and professionalism -- are perfectly cast and shine in challenging roles, though secondary performers seem to fade into the background.
One of the film's best scenes has Pienaar and his team on a tour of Robben Island, where Mandela spent much of his 27-year imprisonment. Pienaar stands somberly in Mandela's tiny cell, barely able to extend his arms. He sees specters of Mandela's time there and hears his voice recite the poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley. While Pienaar's teammates act like wide-eyed tourists, Pienaar himself discovers a deeper appreciation for his president, his country and his own inner strength.
Filmed on location in South Africa, "Invictus" features captivating landscapes and exceptional production values, especially sound (the pitch-perfect sound during the rugby matches is particularly impressive). The movie's only obvious flaw is a drawn-out climax that may leave viewers a bit exhausted.
But Eastwood, Freeman and Damon are a team well worth rooting for. Olé! Olé! Olé!