Movie review: Clint Eastwood's rugby drama 'Invictus,' with Matt Damon

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 11, 2009

If 2009 had a most valuable player award for the movies, it would have to go to Matt Damon. Whether he's appearing in "The Informant!," a Sarah Silverman Web parody or in Clint Eastwood's stirring post-apartheid drama, "Invictus," he has been consistently spot-on and almost breathtakingly self-effacing. He has become that most unlikely Hollywood rarity: a character actor with a matinee-idol face.

In "Invictus," Damon plays Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African rugby team the Springboks, which in 1995 won the World Cup. The movie tells the story of that unlikely and politically crucial victory, which as much as anything was the result of the gentle coaxing and adamantine moral suasion of the country's new president, Nelson Mandela.

Morgan Freeman doesn't play Mandela as much as inhabit the man, in a performance that seems to embody the very transcendence that Mandela himself has come to stand for. Freeman captures with perfect pitch the inner workings of a man who, put in charge of a country still ravaged by the still-fresh violence and injustices of apartheid, sees an opportunity for healing in the rites and rituals of sport. His job is to forge within the black community a sense of identification with a mostly white team that for years has represented oppression.

Eastwood adopts a flat, uninflected style for "Invictus," wisely letting this remarkable story tell itself with a minimum of flourish or underlining. The result is a thoroughly absorbing, inspiring movie that, like last year's "Milk," features one of the year's most galvanizing performances. Freeman doesn't merely impersonate Mandela as much as personify not just political genius but an almost superhuman suppleness of character. Rugby is exciting, sure, but there's nothing more thrilling than radical forgiveness in action.

*** PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief strong profanity. 133 minutes.

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