The oft-quoted final lines of William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem “Invictus’’ read as follows: “I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.’’ If that isn’t a perfect summation of Clint Eastwood’s career, I don’t know one that comes closer.
Time and again, the man has trusted his gut and gone his own way, starring in Italian westerns, turning a fascist cop into a pop icon, directing films about jazz legends and lady boxers and heroic Japanese soldiers. Eastwood is the last lion of his era working at anything near his peak powers, and every December now he drops a movie with the potential to shape the entire year preceding it. He’s Clint Eastwood, dammit, and if he wants to make a film about Nelson Mandela’s love affair with rugby, that’s his business. At this stage of his career, it’s ours too.
“Invictus’’ - named for the poem upon which Mandela relied for inner strength during 27 years of imprisonment - is not among Eastwood’s greatest works, but it’s a strong, satisfying entry in a rarely seen genre: The Civic Statuary movie. Based on John Carlin’s 2008 book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation,’’ it presents the inspirational saga of the 1995 Rugby World Cup - the moment, arguably, when the two sides of post-apartheid South Africa came together as one - as a high-stakes national drama spurred by an unlikely alliance of men.
Morgan Freeman plays Mandela - God being unavailable - and Matt Damon has been cast as Francois Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team, the Springboks. “Invictus’’ opens with Mandela’s 1990 release from prison, then skips ahead four years to his inauguration as president, when the country and the world hold their breath. Everyone expects a bloodbath; Pienaar’s casually racist father (Patrick Lyster) tells his son, “They’re going to take our jobs and drive us into the sea. Just wait.’’
“Invictus’’ playfully defuses that initial tension by following Mandela on his first day in office, registering the shock of the president’s black security chief (Tony Kgoroge) as he’s ordered to share duties with a squad of white cops, watching the surprise on the faces of the Afrikaaner government workers on learning they get to keep their jobs. Knowing he’s working on a grand scale, Eastwood daringly chooses restraint. He could have built Mandela’s entrance into his new office into a major dramatic moment. Instead, we get an uninflected medium shot of the new president silently gazing about him, and we understand: He’s measuring the precise distance from his cell to this room.
“Reconciliation starts here,’’ Mandela insists, and everyone, black and white, assumes he’s kidding. Madiba - the beloved president’s clan name - can’t really mean it, can he? The film presents the statesman as a soft-spoken father figure who knows best, a far-seeing puppetmaster who understands that bringing the races together is the only way forward and that sports is the only way to do that.
So the plot machinery of “Invictus’’ kicks in when Mandela elects to save the predominantly white Springboks from being disbanded by the country’s new sports administration - “in this instance, the people are wrong,’’ he says - and calls Pienaar in for a little chat. The team has long been a symbol of apartheid in the eyes of the country’s black majority, who historically have rooted for anyone but the ’Boks. Now Mandela wants them to win the Cup, and he wants everyone to get behind the notion of “one team, one country.’’
Can a story on this scale function as compelling drama? I actually think that’s what interests Eastwood the most here: the challenge of making historical figures move with the grace of remembered life. Freeman portrays Mandela not as a saint but as a man who knows he has the political freedom of being seen as one; it’s a majestically two-dimensional performance with glimpses of a third dimension peeking through.
Damon has both the easier and harder job. Easier because he has freer rein to invent the less-famous Pienaar (to some degree, this is a matter of technique: blonde dye job, check; solid Boer accent, check); harder because Anthony Peckham’s script doesn’t give the young captain much inner life. Such is the built-in difficulty of Civic Statuary films, in which public figures are judged by their marks on history - on their actions, not their emotions.
And Pienaar is a jock, an honorable and intelligent man whose depths seem unruffled by doubt. He’s there to win. The drama lies not in the character’s understanding of the ghosts that plague his new mentor (literally so in one ham-handed scene), but in coaxing the Springboks into backing the president’s playbook by learning the new national anthem and teaching rugby clinics in the townships.
It’s in those sequences that we see Mandela’s vision of a new South Africa coalesce. Eastwood generally restrains himself from easy sentiment (some glutinous pop songs are repeat offenders) and, strikingly, he dispenses with the usual sequence where the rules of an unfamiliar game are explained to us Yanks. You don’t need to know rugby to appreciate what’s at stake here.
Despite the loose focus on the two men, “Invictus’’ is structured as a portrait of a country in chaotic but hopeful transition. The film spends a lot of time with the security staff while they get to know each other as professionals, as men, as human beings. Scenes with Mandela’s disapproving daughter (Bonnie Henna) and fretful secretary (Adjoa Andoh) hint at the fragile coalition behind the novice politician. As the climactic game is played out, Eastwood lets his camera roam all over South Africa, taking in a national audience forged by excitement and pride.
Of course there’s a climactic game, as there was in real life, even if “Invictus’’ ignores the historical side dramas. (Were the New Zealand All-Blacks - named for their jerseys, not their skin color - suffering from food poisoning that day? Sorry, the movie doesn’t care.) Eastwood lets himself go overboard in the final moments, putting the action on the field and across South Africa into portentous slow motion and cueing the BAM! BAM! BAM! of the close-up time clock. Once again, though, we understand. There are times for restraint, and there are times - such as a fractured nation at last becoming master of its fate - to go wild with joy.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.