December 17, 2009

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Invictus (PG-13)
Closet rugby fan Nelson Mandela seeks to bring his country together with sport in Invictus, an enjoyable example of the sports-as-microcosm-of-society genre.

As the newly elected president of a newly united South Africa, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) is trying to hold his country together. While encouraging people to take advantage of their new freedoms, he is also trying to keep the freaked-out white population from causing civil or economic unrest. So he turns to rugby (simplistic recounting of complex events? Yes, but that’s what a sports movie does best).

The Springboks rugby team might be to white South Africans what the Red Sox are to northern New Englanders, but to black and Indian South Africa, the team is more hated than the Yankees are in deepest Boston. During apartheid, whites cheered for the Springboks and blacks cheered for whoever they were playing against.

But Mandela wants to make the team a rallying point for the whole country. A year out from the rugby World Cup (to be held in the newly desegregated Johannesburg, meaning the Springboks automatically get a slot), Mandela inspires team captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to inspire his team. Though neither their record nor their country would suggest it possible, the Springboks decide to go for the World Cup win.

If you replace apartheid with the Great Depression and rugby with horse-racing, you’ve got Seabiscuit. Or replace rugby with boxing and you have Cinderella Man. Or replace apartheid with economic decline in 1970s Indiana and rugby with bike racing and you have Breaking Away. However you Mad Libs it, Invictus isn’t particularly original in its theme of sports-as-societal-uplifter. But it is a solid entry into this category. The performances are strong enough, the film has nice Eastwood touches (underplaying emotional scenes, a matte-like beauty). At two hours and 14 minutes, it could be shorter, let’s say 30 minutes shorter, but it (and you) don’t suffer from its length. Even the fact that rugby might as well be cricket (or the made-up whack-ball in Fantastic Mr. Fox) for all that most Americans know anything about the game doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the scrums and the tackles and the … well, even with some helpful exposition between the white and black bodyguards about what’s happening on the field I still don’t really understand rugby but it’s shot in a way that makes it both exciting and tension-filled (even though a few seconds with Google will get you the game’s results). B

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Anthony Peckham (from a book by John Carlin), Invictus is two hours and 14 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Warner Bros.