So much of the insistently honorable Invictus is spelled out for slowpokes that when it finally hatches a subtle moment, you cheer. Already, we’ve seen black children kicking a ball on their own field while, directly across the street, white athletes scowl. (Boo!) Apartheid is over, but the movie’s Nelson Mandela (Freeman, stiffer than usual, out of respect) is prone to telling his assembled biracial staff that “reconciliation starts here.” It gets didactic, until the camera captures the beautifully mystified expression of Matt Damon, playing Afrikaner rugby captain Francois Pienaar. Sitting in his car after meeting with the president, Pienaar is speechless: an apolitical man suddenly pressed into a mighty cause. Let us now praise Damon—he may be the actor Clint Eastwood’s been looking for all these years.
Invictus then becomes a tale—a real-life one—of rebranding. Mandela’s inspired vision was to shape the national Springboks club, a green-shirted symbol of the old racism, into figures of a new countrywide pride. That the team went all the way in 1995’s World Cup lends the partnership an almost mythic dimension; Eastwood, as a director of race-related material (White Hunter Black Heart), is too smart to suggest that hatred was suddenly erased. Rather, he leans into the satisfactions of a meat-and-potatoes sports film: lots of slo-mo ball spiralings and cutaways to joyous crowds hoisting lagers. Occasionally, there’s an awkward hug. It shouldn’t go unmentioned that Eastwood, 79, with the inhuman stamina of a Kurosawa, has shot a massive political epic on location within the studio system. The movie isn’t adventurous, but I’m sure glad it exists.—Joshua Rothkopf
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