Morgan Freeman & Matt Damon in the movie Invictus

If we're so post-racial in the Obama era, why does every other movie this season lead to another round of ethnographic scrutiny? "The Princess and the Frog" presents to the world Disney's first African-American princess, and therefore comes with more baggage than a princess should be forced to carry. (Why does the prince have lighter skin than the princess? Is the hoodoo villain a stereotype? Why does the female protagonist struggle for prominence in her own story?)

"The Blind Side," a walloping success, is drawing crowds everywhere, but the love is especially fierce among conservative Southern audiences, most of whom respond to the story not as racially patronizing toward the African-American character, as many have said (I said it), but as a demonstration of pure Christian charity embodied by Sandra Bullock's steel magnolia.

And now we come to stately, impressive "Invictus," the latest from director Clint Eastwood.

I confess to feelings of resistance going into it. Would this be the latest cinematic tale to sideline its primary black character -- South African president and revolutionary game-changer Nelson Mandela, beloved, revered, prime Morgan Freeman material -- in favor of a white protagonist, in this case a South African rugby captain played by Matt Damon?

The answer, happily, is no. Taken from a screenplay by Anthony Peckham, "Invictus" manages a tough thing: to seesaw between Freeman's Mandela and Damon's Francois Pienaar in such a way that actually works, in steady, measured dramatic terms.

It's a crafty film, made in the conciliatory spirit of the statesman Eastwood sees in Mandela.

It's also fascinating how "Invictus" -- as with Eastwood's masterwork of the decade, "Letters From Iwo Jima" -- challenges its maker's screen reputation for sweet, bloody revenge. "We have to surprise them with our compassion, our restraint, our generosity," Mandela says early on, referring to the white Afrikaner population in his uneasily integrated country, post-apartheid. No one wussed around with a line like that in "Gran Torino."

A key supporting character, Mandela's head of security, is played by a wonderful actor named Tony Kgoroge. This man couldn't care less about the South African rugby team, the Springboks. But in this team's long-shot chances for 1995 World Cup Final victory, Mandela sees a grand opportunity. If the Springboks under Pienaar's stewardship can prevail, the country just may skip a step or two on the road to its democratic future.

"Invictus" takes its title from the William Ernest Henley poem Mandela cherished while in prison ("I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul"). The film would have us believe Mandela didn't do much as president beyond following the progress of his new favorite team. Though the script manages a satisfying balance in its portraits, some of the details ring less than true. Pienaar's father (Patrick Lyster) is seen early on as no friend of Mandela, a white Afrikaner threatened by change. By the end of the picture he is a conveniently changed man. The musical score, meanwhile, offers Hollywood trumpet lines too much like the ones we heard in the last few Eastwood pictures.

For all that, "Invictus" chugs toward its climactic match with ease and a sense of purpose.

One of the shrewdest touches is nearly dialogue-free: As two Afrikaner policemen huddle close to their radio outside the Johannesburg stadium during the final showdown, a poor young denizen of the slums joins them. It's not an all's-well moment of unity; rather, the way Eastwood handles it, it's a glancing moment of connection in a country feeling its way past miserable divisions.

The actors anchor the film.

Freeman goes only so far with a dialect, and the script barely gets into Mandela's complexities, but the performance feels fresh and spontaneous. Damon is becoming one of the truest, most reliable actors of his generation. And Eastwood has more films in development, proving, at 79, that 79 is just a number like any other.


MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language).

Running time: 2:14.

Cast: Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela); Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar); Tony Kgoroge (Jason Tshabalala); Adjoa Andoh (Brenda Mazibuko).

Credits: Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Anthony Peckham, based on John Carlin's book "Playing the Enemy"; produced by Eastwood, Lori McCreary, Robert Lorenz and Mace Neufeld. A Warner Bros. Pictures release.


Invictus Movie Review - Morgan Freeman & Matt Damon in Invictus