Predictable and manipulative, “Invictus” is a movie Clint Eastwood could make in his sleep. Despite that — and judging from this often inspiring if generic sports drama — he was too professional to ever sneak in more than a nap.
It begins with the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison, but is mainly about his efforts to unify black and white South Africa after his election to the presidency. His solution is Hollywood-simplistic. Make the national rugby team, the Springboks, hated by blacks as a symbol of apartheid, into all of South Africa’s team. And when the world comes to South Africa for rugby’s World Cup in 1995, show everyone a nation coming together behind a sports team.
Morgan Freeman takes on Mandela and Mandela’s charm, showing Lincolnesque dignity, the simple good manners that helped calm a bitterly divided populace.
“The rainbow nation starts here,” he tells white civil servants, asking them to stay on the job. “Reconciliation starts here.”
His gestures, he knows, won’t be enough. That’s when he locks in on the embattled rugby team, led by Francois Pienaar. Matt Damon, with a rugby player’s build, ennobles this star athlete, making him symbolic of white South Africans who accepted the change in power. The team isn’t great, but if they get better in time for the World Cup, they could help the nation heal, Mandela suggests. Pienaar gets the message, and we settle into the classic “Big Game” sports movie headed toward that defining moment of truth on the field.
The title comes from a 19th-century poem Mandela memorized during his decades as a political prisoner — “I am the master of my fate.” Eastwood doesn’t beat that to death, sparing us the obvious “Win one for Mandela” speech. But that’s the only cliche he avoids in “Invictus.”
Mandela is made saintly — a statesman who speaks in slogans. Black-and-white tensions are mirrored on his security detail and Eastwood never shies from showing a black bodyguard paired with a white one, exchanging grins at the Springboks’ latest glory.
But Eastwood, returning to race as a theme, has made a timely film about a nation of many races rallying around a leader who understands symbolism.
“If I can’t change when circumstances demand it,” says the newly formed First Fan of the Springboks, “how can I expect others to?”
Heavy-handed, with eye-rolling moments in the middle acts as Clint slides a little limp pop music into the training montages, “Invictus” still works as another Warners feel-good movie with sports as its backdrop, a touching story that could hit on your blind side if you aren’t too cynical to let it.