Invictus, a soon-to-be 80-year-old Clint Eastwood's astounding ninth feature film of the decade, opens with a sequence of terrific economy. It's 1990 in South Africa, on the very day that Nelson Mandela is being released after 27 years in prison. The camera opens on a rugby field — green, well-kept grass trod by young white men in neat, well-fitting uniforms, the practice space enclosed by a gleaming, black iron gate.
After capturing this scene for the briefest moment, Eastwood's camera tracks up and catches a different playing field across the street: brown weeds and dust encased by a dilapidated wire fence, where black teens in street clothes play soccer. On the road between, a motorcade passes carrying Mandela to freedom. The soccer players rush to the fence and cheer. The rugby players watch with grim uncertainty. A white coach speaks up: "Remember this day, boys. This is the day your country went to the dogs."
Two hours and five years of movie time later, Eastwood depicts a South Africa, now with Mandela as president, coming together over a World Cup rugby match between the national team and New Zealand. Invictus is about what led the once apartheid-stricken country from the first scene to the last.
Here Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman at his courtly but savvy best. The captain of the rugby team whom he targets as an unlikely ally is played by a bulked-up Matt Damon, solid in a role that doesn't ask for much more.
What is perhaps most intriguing about Invictus is its maturity as a political film. Eastwood touches briefly on Mandela's estrangement from his wife and children but mostly stays out of his personal life. The film is about him as a political actor, facing the difficult task holding together a nation coming out of decades of apartheid. His intentions are noble, but he is not portrayed as a saint. Rather his effectiveness is based on political calculation and skill.
Mandela finds his primary challenge to be balancing black aspirations against white fears. At one point, he tells an all-black audience, focused on reprisal, that he spent his time in prison studying his "enemy," the white minority Afrikaner population, in order to understand them, and that he now plans to use that knowledge to make them his partners in the new South Africa.
This calculation, beyond a simple sense of justice, is why he resists the impulse to break up and rename the mostly white "Springbok" rugby team — beloved by Afrikaners but despised by the black majority as a symbol of apartheid. "If we take away what they cherish, we just reinforce the cycle of fear between us," Mandela explains. "I will do what I can to stop that cycle, or it will destroy us." (Incidentally, there's a hint of an Obama metaphor here, intentional or not, as when an opposition newspaper asks, following Mandela's election: "He can win an election. But can he run a country?")
If the journey from separate-but-unequal playing fields to cross-racial fandom is good for South Africa, the arc is not as satisfying for Invictus. The economy of that opener gives way to an elongated closing sequence that falls flat on the playing field — perhaps if you know rugby it will work better, but the film doesn't help newbies enough — and lingers too repeatedly on fan responses. This sequence is supposed to be an emotional crescendo, but it's really a case of the film losing its footing.
Ultimately, Invictus is a handsomely crafted film on a worthy subject, but it lacks the personal drive or cinematic snap of Eastwood's decade highlights.