Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Drama Eastwood, Freeman near invincible in ‘Invictus’

Eastwood, Freeman near invincible in ‘Invictus’

There are some real-life stories so captivating and poignant that they naturally make for a better movie than any fictional work a screenwriter can muster, because they are ripe with the inspiration needed for a film adaptation. While the history behind South African President Nelson Mandela and his country’s 1995 rugby team may be unknown to most filmgoers, “Invictus” takes this inspiring story and triumphs on all levels.

To say director Clint Eastwood doesn’t know how to work a camera is like saying Dirty Harry didn’t know how to fire a gun. Having just finished his gritty masterpiece “Gran Torino,” the 79-year-old film legend proves once again why he is still one of the best in the industry. Few directors are able to gradually unfold a story with the methodical precision of Eastwood, who allows maximum time to draw the audience into the characters and storyline so they can truly feel what they are watching once the film begins to pick up.

Set in South Africa at the end of apartheid, the film opens up with Mandela’s release from prison after 27 years and election as the oldest South African president at the age of 75 in 1994. Hoping to reconcile white and black South Africans, Mandela (Morgan Freeman, “The Dark Knight”) attempts to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the captain of the South African national rugby team, Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon, “The Informant!”), as vehicles to bring his people together through unified support for their rugby team.

While this film is compelling in all aspects, it owes its solid core to Freeman’s performance. It helps that Freeman physically resembles Mandela, but it’s his ability to effectively capture every nuance of the president’s character — from his personality to his speech pattern to even the way he walks — that makes this portrayal so spot on. This allows the audience to fully experience the wide-ranging emotions that come with a man who is trying to reunite a broken country.

It also helps that Freeman and Eastwood have had a tremendous, award-winning working relationship in the past. The two’s last film together, “Million Dollar Baby,” resulted in Best Picture and Director Oscars for Eastwood and a Best Supporting Actor win for Freeman, and it’s not a stretch to say the two will at least earn nominations in the same categories this year for “Invictus.”

Despite being overshadowed by Freeman throughout the film, Damon still gives a respectable performance. Although he doesn’t necessarily bring anything special to the character, he effectively plays the role without distracting the audience from the story.

However, plaudits have to go to screenwriter Anthony Peckham, who hasn’t had a screenplay reach the silver screen since his first wide release, “Don’t Say a Word,” in 2001. Peckham makes the most of his return, however, adapting John Carlin’s “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation” with the skill of an old pro. Peckham could have let rugby be the sole focus of the story and fall into the oft-treaded rut taken by most sports flicks or used the script as a political soapbox to voice his opinions on Mandela and the apartheid. Instead, he focuses on developing Mandela and Pienaar, allowing everything else to fall into place around these two characters. Sure, the path the story takes is predictable and suffers at times from the use of typical inspirational sequences found in most sports movies, but little of the film’s overall effect is lost in these pitfalls.

Eastwood also makes good use of his son, Kyle, once again. Having helped compose or arrange the score for seven of his dad’s past films, Kyle Eastwood returns to help provide the seamless transition from scene to scene and to bring a brilliant musical energy to the rugby action scenes, enhancing an already breathtaking cinematography that puts the audience right in the middle of the bloody, sweaty action.

Having recently picked up big wins for Best Director and Actor from the National Board of Review, “Invictus” certainly looks to be a strong competitor in the upcoming awards season. This will come as no surprise, however, to anyone who has already seen Eastwood and Freeman skillfully bring to life this captivating story about a man who brought his people together by giving them a champion.

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