Eastwood isn’t a director to indulge in shades of grey and so the film’s first scenes of the historic, televised release of Mandela (Morgan Freeman) from prison in 1990 are preceded by a shot of white boys playing rugby on one side of the road while their black equivalents kick a football on the other. Simple imagery: a background of division established – job done.
A similar, no-nonsense efficiency colours the whole film, which jumps forward to Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, again mixing reconstruction and news footage, before ditching this early documentary feel to settle into a behind-the-scenes walk-through of the early months of his presidency. This was a time when existing presidential staff wrongly expected to be booted out of their jobs; a black civil-rights group believed, also wrongly, that Mandela would support their desire to change the name and colours of the national rugby team; and somewhere in a white suburb the captain of that same team, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) and his family were shaking their heads at the assumption that their country was heading to the dogs.
Eastwood and writer Anthony Peckham further stress South Africa’s lingering disharmony through a chorus of Mandela’s bodyguards, for which existing, white heavies are joined by new, black counterparts. Between them, they trade insults and glares like boxers before a fight. Again, it’s a simple tool, useful enough but marred by some substandard local actors. All praise to Eastwood for casting on the ground; less praise to him for allowing them to disrupt his movie with their awkward presence.
From here, it’s valuable life lessons all round as Mandela invites Pienaar to tea, joins the rugby team in training and – famously – strides on to the pitch at the South Africa v New Zealand final wearing the same Springboks shirt that a year earlier was a divisive symbol of the old nation. Security tensions at this match offer Eastwood an unnecessary sideshow as he tries and fails to insert a thriller element into the film by hinting at a bomb attack or assassination attempt – real fears at the time, but out of place here. A shot of an aircraft flying above the stadium plays on post-9/11 fears – but would anyone in 1995 have suspected a low-flying passenger plane of terrorism?
Both leads are effective, and Damon is very good at displaying Pienaar’s conservatism cracking in the glare of Mandela’s wise optimism. Freeman is perhaps too stately, but it’s a thankless task trying to pull off an impersonation of such a public figure. He’s more at ease in intimate scenes, although on a technical level, his accent raises the odd eyebrow.
‘Invictus’ isn’t one of Eastwood’s best films, especially judged against the late flowering of his career since 2003’s ‘Mystic River’. But it’s still a noble and compassionate work that in its later scenes manages successfully to invest our emotions in the triumph of an important – if overlong! – sporting victory.