Invictus succumbs to sermonizing

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      Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Rated PG. Opens Friday, December 11

      The first president of postapartheid South Africa has said that Morgan Freeman would be the best candidate to play him, but perhaps there should be some kind of international law against politicians—even those as righteous as this one—choosing their own impersonators. Freeman’s take on Nelson Mandela is big-hearted, cautious, slow-moving, and relentlessly on-the-nose. Same goes for Invictus.

      Watch the trailer for Invictus.

      Despite his reactionary rep, Clint Eastwood has always exhibited a sentimental streak, although this is usually tempered by a stronger inclination towards grim realism. Here, working from a script by Anthony Peckham (who also penned the new Sherlock Holmes flick), Old Stoneface adopts a sincere grin, and that’s what hangs there for 134 minutes. The opportunity to inspire with real-life events—built around the long-imprisoned leader’s savvy transformation of a hated symbol of apartheid—has been turned into a friendly lecture laced with sports-movie clichés.

      In 1995, the new president, widely despised for his race, had to peer hopefully into the future while attempting to repair years of grotesque rule. (Hmm, sounds oddly familiar.) Instead of disbanding the sanction-breaking Springboks, the mostly white national rugby team, Mandela instead worked his brand of persistent charm on lead ’Bok Francois Pienaar, the better to whip his teammates into a World Cup–winning frenzy.

      However, frenzy is what we don’t see. As played by a buffed-up Matt Damon, Pienaar was a dull, simple fellow who shook off his racist background and pleasantly suggested—by silent example, apparently—that things could maybe be improved by, you know, pulling together. On-screen, that leaves much time for on-field grunting and reading poems to shockingly cheesy music. Invictus has some fine moments, and it’s good to see a biracial cast of young South African actors, but this movie’s about as deep as a two-hour PSA.