Combustible Celluloid
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With: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Tony Kgoroge, Patrick Mofokeng, Matt Stern, Julian Lewis Jones, Adjoa Andoh, Marguerite Wheatley, Leleti Khumalo, Patrick Lyster, Penny Downie, Bonnie Henna, Shakes Myeko, Louis Minnaar, Danny Keogh, Dan Robbertse, Robin Smith
Written by: Anthony Peckham, based on a book by John Carlin
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language
Running Time: 134
Date: 12/03/2009

Invictus (2009)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Cutting a Rugby

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Clint Eastwood's latest film includes a commanding portrait of Nelson Mandela, after his release from prison in 1990 and during his first few years as President of South Africa. Eastwood avoids the usual biopic trappings by focusing only on a few crucial years and events, namely the rugby World Cup of 1995. Unfortunately, in order to totally succeed, the film must completely take the temperature of the entire nation at the time, including all races and creeds. Since no film could possibly accomplish that, Invictus winds up as merely a very good inspirational sports story.

Morgan Freeman (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby) plays Mandela, and you almost want to stand up every time he appears on screen. Matt Damon plays Francois Pienaar, the captain of the rugby team, which faces hatred from at least half the country, given that they represent the horrible years under the apartheid system. Against pressure to disband the team, Mandela orders them to keep going as is, and begins doing everything necessary to inspire the team, in the hopes that a victory will unite the nation once again, if only for a moment.

There's a lot to cram into one movie, and Anthony Peckham's script is fairly simplistic, but Eastwood is as skilled a director as any working today. Some of his sequences and setups -- such as the first meeting of the new members of Mandela's security team -- are so clever in their simplicity that they would be the envy of any younger filmmaker. The film could have been improved by narrowing the focus on the friendship between Mandela and Pienaar, and though their handful of meetings over the course of the film pack a punch, they never burrow very deep. (The Pienaar character is never developed much further than his relationship with Mandela.) But the climactic match is as effective as any climactic match in any sports film to date.

Warner Home Video has released a very good Blu-Ray combo pack, which also includes a bare-bones DVD and a digital copy. There's a feature that allows viewers to watch a series of interviews along with the feature. There are two featurettes, one on Freeman and one on Damon, and their preparations for the film. And Richard Schickel's 20-minute The Eastwood Factor is here as well. We also get a "music" trailer, and other promo items.

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