Thursday, December 10, 2009

Freeman's Mandela a wonder to behold

Morgan Freeman's Mandela courts a rugby player (Matt Damon).

How you ultimately feel about Invictus, a South Africa-based story about the relationship between big-time sports and national unity, depends on how you regard the role sports often plays in society. We've all seen countries unite around the success of a national team -- witness the Olympics -- but does that kind of unity encourage lasting change or does it provide an illusion of progress that serves to support the status quo?

Clint Eastwood, who directed Invictus, seems inclined toward the former view, but he's not the kind of director who draws hard conclusions. In telling the story of how and why Nelson Mandela lent his support to a South African rugby team that had been hated by blacks during apartheid, Eastwood provides a picture of South African society during the pivotal moment in 1994 when Mandela became the country's president.

For years Morgan Freeman has been talking about making a movie about Mandela. In recent interviews, Freeman has said that he never found a script that did justice to the sweep of Mandela's career. As an executive producer and star of Eastwood's movie, Freeman gets his chance to play this international icon in a story that's more a snapshot than a fully rounded picture. Invictus is, however, a very good snapshot, and Freeman's performance as Mandela -- called Madibe by his African constituents -- is one of the year's best.

Most of us never will meet Mandela, but through Freeman, we feel as if we've come close. After spending 27 years as a prisoner on Robben Island, Mandela adopted a policy of reconciliation and devoted himself to building national unity. He wanted to persuade white South Africans -- particularly Afrikaners who idolized the Springboks rugby team -- that South African's blacks would not turn into the nightmare avengers that whites feared.

Freeman depicts Mandela as cagey, appealing, wise and funny. He not only looks like Mandela, but he has mastered the leader's walk and accent. It's as if Freeman has lived in Mandela's skin long before we see Mandela walking into his office as president of South Africa. Freeman's performance becomes all the more convincing because it's not showy. He makes it clear that Mandela often tempered his power with charm. His gait suggests that imprisonment may have put an untenable weight on his shoulders without ever breaking his spirit.

The story focuses on two figures, Mandela and rugby player Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). A heavily buffed Damon portrays Pienaar as a good-hearted jock who's easily won over by Mandela. This is no simple matter. Pienaar is the captain of Spingboks, a team that epitomized apartheid for black South Africans. According to the movie, Springbok had one black player when it made its run for the World Cup in 1995.

Eastwood, a director who never intrudes on his material, works from a script by Anthony Peckham that's based on the book, Playing the Enemy by John Carlin. Eastwood doesn't skimp on scenes that show the tensions between blacks and whites in the "new" South Africa. The security detail assigned to protect Mandela is composed of blacks and whites who aren't as committed to unity as Mandela. Pienaar's father reflexively expresses the white prejudices of the day, even when the family's black maid stands within earshot.

Invictus, by the way, is the tile of an 1875 poem by British writer William Ernest Henley. Mandela says that the poem inspired him during his imprisonment on Robin Island, particularly the lines "I am master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul."

Normally, I'd be tempted to approach such a line with raised eyebrows of skepticism, but if it worked for Mandela, who am I to knock it?
I don't know much about rugby, aside from the fact that it's brutally rough. An end-of-picture match goes on too long for my taste, particularly because Eastwood refuses to bog down the narrative with a tutorial on the sport.

But it's Freeman's portrayal of Mandela that finally wins the day. If Freeman had any fears about portraying Mandela, he now can put them aside. I don't know how it would be possible for an actor to inhabit a character more fully.

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