Here’s a short version of history according to Invictus, an adaptation of John Carlin’s book Playing The Enemy: Nelson Mandela And The Game That Made A Nation. Freed from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) becomes the first president of South Africa elected after the end of apartheid. Presiding over an uneasily united nation, he focuses primarily on rugby—with the occasional diplomatic trip abroad—and on insuring that the Springboks, the national team, no favorite among black South Africans, does well in the South Africa-hosted 1995 World Cup. Meanwhile, the Springboks struggle, much to the frustration of their captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). Then Pienaar meets Mandela, and the team’s luck turns around. It’s a simplistic, superficial approach to a real-life story that marginalizes most historical details not involving scrums and tackles. It’s also pretty effective, in spite of the gloss.
Clint Eastwood brings his usual late-career leisureliness behind the camera to the movie, in an initially frustrating approach that becomes increasingly satisfying as the film moves along. Eastwood lets the cameras roll and roll as Mandela’s longtime security guards and their newly assigned white co-workers, men who not long ago worked against anti-apartheid protesters, eye each other uneasily. But the time spent yields rewards as the relationships between the men evolve over the course of the film, especially during the climactic championship game. Men who once had every reason to hate each other wind up united by a common desire—a need, really—to watch the home team win.
In the grand scheme, winning means much less than creating smart, compassionate government policies, but its symbolic value is impossible to overstate. Invictus doesn’t have much interest in portraying history with any depth, but it gets how seemingly frivolous interests can unite people. Apart from the excitingly executed rugby scenes, Damon isn’t given much to do, compared to most headlining actors. Nor is Freeman, for that matter; the film has little interest in getting to know the man beneath the canny statesmanship. But both leads convey a sense of quiet depths, unspoken negotiations, and a will to change the world. In an early scene, Pienaar’s bigoted father speaks bleakly of a post-apartheid South Africa as if talking about the end of life as he knows it. By the end of the film, he’s been proven right, but not in the way he expected.