It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
When considering those lines from William Earnest Henley’s 1875 poem “Invictus,” it’s easy to conjure up a mental image of Nelson Mandela, the ultimate survivor.
Clint Eastwood’s workmanlike film of the same name tells the story of how Mandela used the 1995 Rugby World Cup finals to help heal the wounds of a racially divided South Africa.
The true story is based upon John Carlin’s book, “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation.” Eastwood’s sturdy and respectful film adaptation may be very conventional, but it’s inarguably sincere.
Morgan Freeman (“The Dark Knight”) stars as Mandela, the newly named president of South Africa. Apartheid has just been abolished, at least officially, and the novice leader has taken the reigns of a polarized country.
Matt Damon (“The Informant”) co-stars as Francois Pienaar, a player and the captain of a poorly performing rugby team called the Springboks.
While the powerful minority white population cheers the Springboks on, the poor black majority sees the team as a symbol of oppression, and they’re duly vilified.
But in Mandela’s eyes, the Springboks can be used as a tool of reconciliation. If he can get all of his black and white countrymen to support this struggling team then there would be a sliver of hope for a united South Africa.
If they could actually become champions, then nothing would be impossible.
Naturally, if this weren’t a true story, it would probably be laughed off the screen as hokey Hollywood wish fulfillment. The fact that it actually happened gives this otherwise standard screenplay some dramatic heft.
Damon has beefed up considerably, shedding the flab he laboriously added for “The Informant” and replacing it with muscle. Here, after extensive training from South African rugby coaches, he certainly looks the part. To an American ear, his accent seems quite authentic, too, thank you.
Freeman brings a considerable degree of quiet dignity to the role of Mandela, a peaceful pragmatist who, after decades in prison, understands the power (and necessity) of forgiveness.
But, of course, the real star of “Invictus” is the nearly 80-year-old Eastwood. Although the veteran filmmaker shows little inspiration in his cinematic choices here, his keen attention for detail is evident in every frame and he’s made a realistic and involving adaptation of Anthony Peckman’s screenplay.
If “Invictus” is inspirational, it’s because that is what the reality dictates. (PG-13) Rating: ***1/2
* Avoid at all costs
** Only if you're bored
*** Good movie
**** Well worth your time
***** Be sure to see it