By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Clint Eastwood's late filmmaking sprint in a long, illustrious career doesn't seem to have a finish line. At age 79, he's churning out movies faster and better than most filmmakers half his age, recently two per year.
Perhaps it's inevitable that Eastwood's new film Invictus — it could've been the next one — is the first time this century when a measure of creative fatigue creeps into his work. Eastwood is still a devoted storyteller and an actor's best friend on the set, but Invictus feels misplaced from TV where it should be.
Maybe it's because there aren't any surprises springing from this factual story of South African President Nelson Mandela relying upon a rugby team to promote racial harmony. There's no late Million Dollar Baby twist of tragedy or Gran Torino violence, no view from fresh perspectives like his Iwo Jima dramas. Invictus is a solid movie, but from a revered filmmaker like Eastwood that simply isn't enough.
Invictus features another quietly powerful performance by the director's kindred old soul, Morgan Freeman as Mandela, although even that casting speaks to the film's easy way out.
Freeman is superb, affecting what sounds like a proper accent without losing his mellifluous tones. After playing God and presidents, Freeman is an immediate choice to play a world icon of decency.
But you wonder whether casting stars like Freeman and Matt Damon as the rugby team's captain doesn't damage the drama. Their supporting cast of unknown actors is equally effective, so lesser-known actors in the lead roles might generate more suspense in an obligatory big-game climax that drags on for 20 minutes. Does anyone really believe that Freeman and Damon won't prevail with their uncommonly common goals? Not if you've watched their movies.
The story is certainly worth telling: After decades of imprisonment for defying South African apartheid, Mandela is released and elected the nation's first black president. Whites fearful of losing their cultural dominance are perturbed (this year's vitriol aimed at Barack Obama is an unavoidable subtext). Mandela needs something to lure everyone together for a group hug.
The Springboks rugby club led by captain Francois Pienaar (Damon) becomes the bait, a band of underachievers who, in the tradition of sports movie cliches, turns things around to reach the World Cup finals, conveniently held in South Africa for maximum feel-good effect. It's all true, but that doesn't prevent Invictus from feeling manufactured, but sturdily so.
Eastwood isn't faulted for his storytelling precision. Again working with cinematographer Tom Stern (a collaboration stretching back to 1982's Honkytonk Man), Invictus always places the camera where it will convey the most. Nothing tricky because that isn't Eastwood's style.
The script and actors do the rest. Usually no frills from Eastwood will signal a surprise is coming, something richer than the material suggests. Not this time.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.