Clint Eastwood could quite simply be pound for pound the greatest filmmaker of all time. I know that is quite the statement but I think Eastwood's own work speaks volumes. Not only is he a great actor and has a pantheon of great performances to choose from but he is also an exceptionally accomplished filmmaker and his film's have only gotten better and better over the last few decades. Perhaps Eastwood was prematurely marginalized in the early part of his career for playing tough guys in the classic Sergio Leone Spaghetti westerns and, of course, for his role in the "Dirty Harry" films but the actor transcended all of that in the early '90s with his Oscar winning film "Unforgiven," for which he received an Academy Award for directing. Since the turn of the century however, the actor/director has been on a real roll serving up one highly acclaimed movie after another including "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," for which he also won a best director Oscar, "Flags of our Fathers, "Letters from Iwo Jima," "Changeling," "Gran Torino" and now possibly is best film yet, "Invictus." When you consider that Eastwood has directed roughly 75% of the films that he has worked on since his directorial debut with "Play Misty For Me" almost forty years ago, you can't help but be impressed and consider that Eastwood may be at age seventy-nine at the peek of his craft.
Invictus quite elegantly and quickly tells the story of Nelson Mandela's freedom from his oppressors in 1992 and his rise to power as the President of South Africa in 1994. This all happens during the opening credits allowing the narrative to actually begin on the first day of Mandela's Presidency. We meet Mandela a deeply powerful and quiet man played with reserve and beauty by Morgan Freeman. Freeman is pitch-perfect in the role inhabiting the character while making it his own. You forget for most of the film that you are watching Freeman and completely believe that you are watching Mandela himself except for a few lovely moments where Freeman himself shines through the role reminding us that this is still just a performance. It is truly remarkable and worthy of all the accolades he is beginning to receive for the role. As the story continues we meet his staff of loyal bodyguards who are all portrayed wonderfully by a fantastic group of actors as they are forced to work side by side with the white South African bodyguards who worked for the previous administration. What's nice about the film is that they are not background characters yet instead mirror the message of the film, which is the various different colored people of this country healing and coming together in the wake of apartheid. As Mandela goes about the business of running the country he realizes that in order to do so he will have to bring the nation together and picks an unusual way of doing that ... through the game of rugby.
We are then introduced to the South African rugby the Springbok and led by their captain Francois Pienaar, played with a to perfection by Matt Damon in an absolutely amazing performance. Like Freeman, Damon nails the accent and the character without ever loosing himself. As if every once and a while the actor just winks to remind you, again that this is a performance and that he's still in there, it's truly inspiring work and some of the best of Damon's career. With the World Cup of rugby being played in South Africa that year, President Mandela realizes that it is the only way to unite his country, on the world stage. For years rugby had been the national sport of white South Africans and black South Africans had grown to hate it as it stood for the apartheid. Mandela's plan is to win the World Cup and unite the country, easier said then done as the team is in no shape to win. Mandela summons Pienaar, whose own father doesn't believe in Mandela, to talk about the team. He inspires Pienaar to overcome is fears and to think of something larger than the game, the country. Mandela asks him, no matter how impossible it seems at the time, to win the World Cup in order to heal the country. He agrees to try and what begins is a friendship that is so powerful it changes a nation. Mandela eventually gives Pineaar a poem he read while in prison that inspired him to survive, the poem is entitled, Invictus and it is where the film's title comes from. Now, with Mandela in their corner as their biggest fan, the Springbok go on to do the impossible and in the process begin to heal a country in desperate need of salvation.
Eastwood does a marvelous job of telling the story of the rugby team as a backdrop to Mandela's own story where a straight ahead biopic might have been to easy. This way Mandela the person is not on display but rather Mandela the legacy, which I think is better in the long run. Eastwood certainly had a feeling and a point of view that he brought to the screen about the famous leader but at the same time I was glad that he was not afraid to also put a spotlight on his flaws as his womanizing, and failed relationship with his ex-wife and children were all on display. Another thing that Eastwood does marvelously is he allows you to follow the outcome of the games without needing to understand the sport itself. I have no idea what the rules of Rugby are but I could tell when our boys were winning and when they were loosing and that's all that really matters. Also, Eastwood's directing is at top form, his glorious shooting in the film's final game sequences truly is amazing and some of the best sport-crowd shots in film history. The only criticism I have is at points the film becomes a bit heavy-handed and some of Eastwood's musical choices are just ridiculous, which is surprising since he is a accomplished composer in his own right yet most of the lyrical songs in the film are just over-kill. Still, Eastwood certainly deserves all the accolades he will receive this year, as the film and his directing are absolutely superb.
But it is the acting in this film that makes it a triumph. Freeman, who produced the film, has been trying to get this made for years and the combination of he and Clint collaborating for the third time on this film is just inspired. I can't think of another actor who could have played this role with grace and dignity like Freeman did. His "inspirational" speeches are never too much and it is in the little he is doing at times that strikes you the most. It is like he is able to slip on the character of Mandela like a comfortable coat. If this role doesn't cement Freeman as one of the greatest actors of his generation than I fear nothing ever will as this is about as good as a performance can be. However most surprising is how well Matt Damon rose to the occasion. Damon has been one of the steadiest actors out there since his arrival on the scene in the late '90s but this performance is above what I thought the actor was capable of. With a few exceptions in the film, Matt Damon completely transforms into another person and portrays the fears and dreams of his character perfectly. He is especially wonderful in a scene where he leads his team, with their wives, on a trip to visit the prison where the President once lived. Damon's face says everything when he closes the bars and stands alone in the cell, his arms spread out touching both walls and looking out the same window Mandela did for twenty-seven years. It is truly remarkable work.
In the end, Invictus is an important film but not just for the story, more for the feeling of humanity that you have after watching it. I couldn't help but think about the crossroads that we find our own country in at this time in history and the similarities between Mandela and President Obama. In fact there was a line that Freeman says at the beginning of the film that really rang true. He is speaking to his secretary on his first day in office and talking about what his critics will say about him, "He can win an election but can he run a country." Does that sound familiar? To me it sounds a lot like President Obama's detractors, which I found to be quite relevant. Whether that was the filmmakers intent or not, I don't know but it does serve as food for thought and an excellent use of cinema. If Eastwood's film is able to hold up a window to the past causing us to watch a mirror of ourselves, than that is what great filmmaking is all about, transcending the media to become something more important. This is one of those films, if we can learn from it, embrace our new leadership and heal as a country than perhaps we can overcome our problems and come together the way South Africa does in this film.