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Invictus ***

Is it worth $10? Yes

"Invictus" is a nicely made drama with strong lead performances and a compelling story. But it also feels oddly hollow, and the reason is this: No matter how important a rugby game may be to uniting apartheid-torn South Africa, it's still just one game, and one game cannot eradicate 50 years of hateful segregation. Granted, there are key turning points in all major struggles, but director Clint Eastwood gives the impression that this game will make all the difference, and that's too much to believe.

When Nelson Mandela is elected president of South Africa in 1994, he inherits a country that's uncertain of how to proceed in a post-apartheid world, as that's the only society most of his countrymen have ever known. Based on a true story, Mandela is a tireless worker who believes small steps can lead to great gain. He refuses to fire the holdover presidential staff, most of which is white. He also hires white bodyguards to the objection of his head of security, Jason (Tony Kgoroge). "Forgiveness liberates the soul," Mandela tells Jason, in effect asking him to forgive the white authority figures who’ve mistreated his friends and family.

The country has lingering housing, food, employment and crime problems, but Mandela sees an opportunity for unity in the national rugby team, captained by Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). With the country hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela enlists Pienaar to lead the mostly-white team to victory, and do so with a spirit of inclusion of the entire country -- all 43 million people.

Although Anthony Peckham’s script is based on the book "Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation" by John Carlin, the film is named after the poem "Invictus" by William E. Henley. The poem, which is recited throughout the film, inspired Mandela during his 27 years of incarceration for daring to speak out against apartheid. It is about the character of man while under great adversity, which is a theme that reflects both Mandela and Pienaar, as the latter must motivate an otherwise terrible team to do something special in a little more than a year.

The rugby scenes are handled nicely, and Freeman ably captures a determined man who believes in his convictions even when others tell him he’s wrong. Damon is also superb, as he bulked up substantially for the role (he was probably happy to do so after being “doughy” for “The Informant!”) and perfectly handles a South African accent.

At 134 minutes "Invictus" does slightly overstay its welcome, but the performances and dramatic impact make it worth the effort. It’s a human story with real emotion, handled professionally and effectively.

Did you know?
In real life, Pienaar is much taller and bigger than Damon. "Francois invited me to his home and made me this incredible gourmet dinner,” Damon said. “When I got to his house, he answered the door and I just looked up at him. There was a pregnant pause, and I said, 'I look much bigger on camera.'"

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