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Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 01:42 pm

Invictus: A moving testament to forgiveness and redemption

Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar captain of the South African rugby team.

When making a historical film, there’s always the danger of treating the material with such reverence that the story itself becomes staid and dull. Fortunately, director Clint Eastwood avoids that trap with his latest film, Invictus, an account of Nelson Mandela’s attempt to heal his fractured homeland by having the citizens of South Africa rally around a common cause. While the instrument he uses, the nation’s rugby team, is an unorthodox one, what’s more amazing is that his plan actually worked.

Having served a 27-year prison sentence, Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is elected president of South Africa four years after his release, inheriting a fractured country, rife with problems and on the verge of civil war.  In order to heal the wounds of apartheid, he must find a way to unify his populace and focuses on the nation’s Springbok rugby team to do so. Enlisting the help of the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), he charges them to win the World Cup tournament of 1995, which the country is hosting, so the eyes of the world can see a nation united.

It’s a high-risk gamble but it pays off handsomely, and in Eastwood’s sure hands the story slowly builds to a satisfying conclusion. As the players wrestle with their own prejudices and doubt, Mandela provides a steady hand to guide them towards becoming a better version of themselves. It’s hard not to feel a lump in your throat when you see Pienaar and his players put on a rugby clinic with impoverished youngsters in the middle of a slum or witness two hardened police officers cheer on the Springboks, side-by-side with a black street urchin. Never cloying and always sincere, the film earns our tears particularly during its exciting climax. You don’t have to know rugby (though it might help) to get wrapped up in the championship match between South Africa and New Zealand. Eastwood devotes a half hour of screen time, nearly devoid of dialogue, to it. It’s an effective tactic as the tension slowly builds towards a satisfying, cathartic conclusion that’s one of the best in sports film history.  

Freeman was born to tackle this role and he does so with the professionalism and skill we’ve come to expect from him. His demeanor is stately as well as humble, commanding a degree of respect that only one who’s sacrificed so much can command. Damon matches him, showing Pienaar’s growing confidence in himself as a player and a man. The actor is one of the best and most honest of his generation and seeing these two pros share the screen is truly a treat. Genuinely moving, Invictus proves to be one of the year’s best as it perfectly captures the transcendent power of sports as well as that of the human spirit.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.
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