If I ever get a terminal disease I want the news to be broken to me by Morgan Freeman. The man has a voice that can be all things – commanding, soothing, intense, informative – whatever the occasion demands. In INVICTUS, he uses that voice, altered with a South African accent, to represent the venerated Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa after apartheid. And in this he succeeds to an incredible degree. But the film only glosses over the greatness of the man which leads to a missed opportunity for Freeman, and then uses the story of a rugby match (obscure to most Americans) to show his political and diplomatic savvy. And while the audience, once they decipher the rules of rugby, does root for the team and is uplifted through their victory, the true potential of Freeman’s performance is limited in this structure.
INVICTUS begins with a quick back-story of South Africa and Nelson Mandela, through news footage with Morgan Freeman pieced in. Then, as Mandela begins his presidency, he begins the process of holding his country together, as the whites fear retribution for their years of oppression of the black population. The first thing he does is keep the white members of his staff, including his security detail, which upsets his black head of security, played by Tony Kgoroge, as he doesn’t trust white security officers. The next thing he does is put his full support behind the South African rugby team, the Sprinboks, beloved by the whites in South Africa, hated by the blacks, including Mandela when he was imprisoned. He meets with the captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), and explains to him without ever saying it (very well written screenplay) the importance of winning the upcoming World Cup. The rugby team embraces its role, reaching out to the impoverished black community as the country and the security detail learn to come together in their support.
The few conversations Mandela has to bring people over to his way of thinking are written and performed perfectly. However, they are too few and far between and much of the movie gets bogged down in Eastwood’s slow pace, which has been an asset in films like MILLION DOLLAR BABY and UNFORGIVEN (both with Freeman) but here has people checking their watches. Matt Damon does well with the accent, but only has a few inspiring occasions as the team’s captain and in a sports movie, which this mostly is (sort of), those are important. Damon does have a thoughtful scene where he takes the team to Robben Island (where President Mandela was imprisoned) which was a touching scene. The fact that rugby is not the typical American sport also is something that works against the film, as stuff happens and sometimes it’s hard to figure out what. The crowd cheers, we guess something good happened, but it’s not like football or baseball, where scoring or defensive stops are easily defined. There are great moments in the film which take it up a notch, but as a whole, the pacing is too slow and the sport too obscure. But a great thing – and I want this sound byte played at my funeral – is Morgan Freeman’s recitation of the poem “Invictus.” That and he wears a Cosby sweater at one point…which is awesome.