An Actor Nails the Cadence and the Charm, a Review of "Invictus"





MORGAN FREEMAN has been cast as God — twice — so he evidently has no trouble projecting moral authority. The challenge of portraying Nelson Mandela, then, was not the size of the halo, but knowing the performance would be measured against the real, familiar Mandela, and his myth. “If we can say any part of acting is hard, then playing someone who is living and everybody knows would be the hardest,” Mr. Freeman said in a phone interview.

The role has defeated actors as varied as Danny Glover (the 1987 TV film “Mandela”), Sidney Poitier (“Mandela and de Klerk,” 1997, also for TV) and Dennis Haysbert (“Goodbye Bafana,” 2007), in vehicles that were reverential and mostly forgettable.

But as someone who studied Mr. Mandela over the course of three years while he replaced an apartheid regime with a genuine democracy, I found Mr. Freeman’s performance in the film “Invictus,” directed by Clint Eastwood, uncanny — less an impersonation than an incarnation.

He gets the rumble and halting rhythm of Mr. Mandela’s speech, the erect posture and stiff gait. There is a striking physical resemblance, enhanced by the fact that Mr. Freeman, 72, is just a few years younger than Mr. Mandela was in the period the film covers. More important, Mr. Freeman conveys the manipulative charm, the serene confidence, the force of purpose, the hint of mischief and the lonely regret that made Mr. Mandela one of the most fascinating political figures of his time. This is not, as the film’s screenwriter, Anthony Peckham, put it, “Rich Little doing Mandela in Vegas.”

It’s hard to say whether Americans at this moment in their history crave a 130-minute parable of racial reconciliation built around a 1995 World Cup rugby match in South Africa. Audiences and movie critics will render their verdict on “Invictus,” which reaches theaters Friday.

But we could probably do worse, as an antidote to the cynicism on the noisy margins of our political life, than spending a couple of hours watching Mr. Mandela calculating how to knit together a grotesquely divided society.

The story of “Invictus,” drawn from John Carlin’s book “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation,” begins with the newly inaugurated president of post-apartheid South Africa looking for ways to enlist his fearful white minority — with its talent, wealth, resentment and capacity for insurrection — in the business of governing a democracy. His inspired stratagem is to embrace the Springboks national rugby team, the darlings of the formerly ruling Afrikaners and, for most nonwhite South Africans, a symbol of brutal and humiliating repression...

... According to Mr. Freeman, his mission to portray Mr. Mandela on the screen began with a public invitation from the subject himself. At a press conference to promote the publication of his 1994 memoir, “Long Walk to Freedom,” someone asked Mr. Mandela who should play him in the movie.

“And he said he wanted me,” Mr. Freeman recalled. “So it became. That was the whole sanction, right there.”...

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