As a film addict, I cannot describe how great it is to have a film exceed my high expectations. That’s my fix. And in a year like this one, where several films have seriously under delivered, a movie like Invictus is that much more triumphant.
It’s no secret: I am a Clint Eastwood fan. Ever since he made a drastic change to his filmmaking approach- indelible stories, steely hues, soft score- with Mystic River in 2003, he has excelled as one of our best living filmmakers. And the guy is pretty damn prolific, too. He’s directed six grade-A movies in seven years. Make Invictus the seventh.
Invictus tells the story of a just-freed Nelson Mandela and his struggle to unite the people of South Africa. It’s an interesting thought: how does one come to accept, and forgive, the people that kept him in prison for 25 years? Mandela decides that to bind his country he will enlist the nearly all white South African rugby team, and its capitan Francois (Matt Damon), to win the rugby World Cup. Here’s where I was a little shaky going in. How will the film show Mandela doing this? By cheating? Buying off the other teams? Using his "holy" power? The answer is simple: by casting Morgan Freeman in the lead role.
From his first moment onscreen, Freeman is Mandela. When he asks Francois over for tea, casually implying that a World Cup victory could be the answer to their country’s civil unrest, Freeman actually makes you believe in the power of Nelson Mandela. The conviction that the real man has with the soft use of his voice, the delicate phrasing of his sentences. It’s a tough role, and beautifully executed.
Morgan Freeman is one of the world’s most recognizable actors. He has a commanding presence that you notice right away. He’s proven time and time again of his ability to convince us as an actor. Roles in Glory, Unforgiven, The Shawshank Redemption, Seven and Million Dollar Baby are a few standouts. But as Mandela, Freeman delivers the best performance of his immaculate career. It’s the kind of acting that makes an Oscar seem like an afterthought. You may think that because Freeman is so identifiable he may not be able to pull off a real-life person of Mandela’s magnitude. Think again. Watch the way Freeman, as Mandela, raises his hand to a crowd, or slowly delivers his lines, as if picking through each word. From his walk to his smile, Freeman simply embodies Mandela.
Matt Damon, in a touching performance, delivers reliable work as Francois. From Good Will Hunting to Syriana, The Departed to The Informant! Whether he’s Jason Bourne or Private Ryan, Damon has always done an excellent job of shying away from his pretty-boy image. He handles one of the best scenes in the film with wonderfully restrained emotion. The whole rugby team goes to the prison Mandela was kept in. Francois walks into Mandela’s own cell and slowly spans out his arms. His span his larger than the cell. How did he do it? Survive for 25 years in here. Sleeping on the floor, breaking rocks in the yard? Damon asks all of these questions, without saying a word. Expect to see Damon’s name twice on the Oscar shortlist, Best Actor for The Informant!, Best Supporting Actor here.
Invictus unfolds like most recent Eastwood movies do: through slow progression and well-paced storytelling. Don’t get me wrong, the rugby scenes have a crisp, fluid appeal (Blind Side, take note), that will satisfy any sports fan. But at the heart of the film is a director (albeit a 79-year-old director) at the top of his game, two actors delivering career-defining work, a story told as tender as it is true, and a movie that exceeds even the highest of expectations. Bravo. A
Note: Some of you have asked me what Invictus means. It is Latin for ‘unconquered’.