Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Kimball's Peak Three, Tinseltown
Good news about Invictus: Just because it's set in the southernmost reaches of what sometimes still is called "the dark continent"; and it involves political events of two decades ago, metaphorically explained by way of a locally little-known sport; and it draws its title from a Victorian poem with a dead-language title; doesn't mean it will be in any way challenging, thematically indigestible or otherwise unsafe for consumption by regular ol' formula-habituated mainstream movie audiences.
The film was directed by Clint Eastwood, after all. And it stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon — who, for a true story of a human-rights hero and a rugby player, probably are the most obvious casting choices around. Just try not to think of Invictus as cultural colonialism, and everything will be fine.
"Unconquered" is what that title means, as in "Out of the night that covers me, / Black as the Pit from pole to pole, / I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul." Written in 1875 by the British poet William Ernest Henley, those lines, and the dozen others that follow, supplied Nelson Mandela with words to live by during the 27 years of prison captivity he endured until 1990, when Invictus begins.
"It is that terrorist Mandela — they let him out," a rural rugby coach says to his team in the movie's first few minutes. "Remember this day, boys. This is the day our country went to the dogs." Of course, the poor black kids playing soccer behind a fence across the street don't see it that way. And then, with a few quick strokes of Freeman-infused historical montage, and a few tranquil trumpet notes of Kyle Eastwood's score, the post-Apartheid era, and the Mandela presidency, has begun.
"He can win an election, but can he run a country?" Freeman says in his carefully calibrated accent, reading a newspaper headline. "It's a legitimate question." Lest this moment seem too politically intricate for American audiences, Eastwood promptly neutralizes it. Imagine an old Reagan campaign commercial dressed in drag as one for Obama. It's morning again in the Republic of South Africa. We actually see the sun rising over shanty towns. We also see Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar, in a "South Africa Rugby" T-shirt, watching TV news reports of Mandela's ascendance with interest, and absorbing his father's reactionary insecurities with a level head.
Notwithstanding the protracted ministrations of establishing his half-black, half-Afrikaner security detail, it isn't long before the president has invited the rugby captain to tea, reminded him, with help from Henley's poem, to be the captain also of his own soul, and told him, "In order to build our nation, we must all exceed our expectations." Imagine a social-issue movie dressed in drag as an inspirational-underdog sports movie.
Thing is, this actually happened. However close the film pushes to preposterousness, however many post-racial platitudes it regurgitates, there's no denying Mandela's very real insight that the malleable symbology of the Springboks rugby team might actually offer his riven nation a way toward its better future. Anthony Peckham's screenplay (adapted from John Carlin's book, Playing the Enemy) gets nudgy and redundant, and Eastwood artlessly follows suit. But the resonant essence of the story, and its stars' infinite likability, go a long way on their own.
Morgan Freeman and Visa hope to see you at the Olympics, but if you can't make it, Invictus should do.